Astronomers have known for a very long time that there are countless other planets out there in the universe, but until very recently the “common knowledge” among most scientists was that there were very few planets with the conditions required for the development of life similar to what we see on earth.
As we learn more about what exists beyond the planet earth, it seems that the building blocks of life exist on many more planets than initially estimated. Water, especially, may be far more abundant in the universe than experts have expected.
A new study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University suggests water is common on other planets. The study was described as the most extensive survey of the chemical compositions of planets ever conducted. Data from 19 exoplanets were used in the survey, to determine the chemical composition of the planets.
They were shocked to find water was common in many of these exoplanets, although none of these planets have the abundance of water that we have here on earth.
Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, the project leader of the study, says that the chemical compositions of the planets studied are incredibly diverse.
“We are seeing the first signs of chemical patterns in extra-terrestrial worlds, and we’re seeing just how diverse they can be in terms of their chemical compositions. It is incredible to see such low water abundances in the atmospheres of a broad range of planets orbiting a variety of stars. Given that water is a key ingredient to our notion of habitability on Earth, it is important to know how much water can be found in planetary systems beyond our own,” he said.
The survey found water vapor present in 14 of the 19 planets studied, however, oxygen was far less abundant.
Luis Welbanks, lead author of the study and Ph.D. student at the Institute of Astronomy says that there are many important things that can be learned by understanding how much of each chemical we can expect to find on these planets.
“Measuring the abundances of these chemicals in exoplanetary atmospheres is something extraordinary, considering that we have not been able to do the same for giant planets in our solar system yet, including Jupiter, our nearest gas giant neighbour,” Welbanks said.
It is important to note that this study only shows us the minimum amount of these compounds that are on these planets, because the data has been collected by telescopes that scan for telling signs of these components, and there may be portions of these planets that are yet to be fully surveyed. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency shared the first image of a massive sheet of ice on Mars, which was hiding from us for years despite its close proximity to the earth.
Researchers aren’t even clear on how much water is on Mars, so it is very likely that the estimates seen in the study are an understatement.