Planet Hunters Find Watery Clue to Alien Life

For the first time, scientists looking for life outside the Solar System have identified a faraway planet with water vapor in its atmosphere.

For planets to be able to contain life, they must be in a star’s “Goldilocks zone,” where water is liquid—neither too close to the star (or water would evaporate in the heat) or too far away (where it would freeze).

The planet in question is called K2-18b, and it was first observed in 2015. Follow-up studies using the Hubble space telescope revealed the water in the planet’s atmosphere—possibly in the form of rain or clouds.

The discovery is an encouraging sign for scientists searching the Universe for places other than Earth where life might have developed.

Planet K2-18b is what is known as an exoplanet. “Exo” means outside, and exoplanets are outside the Solar System. Scientists who look for these distant worlds are called astronomers.

“This is the first potentially habitable planet where the temperature is right and where we now know there is water,” said University College London astronomer Angelos Tsiaras. “It’s the best candidate for habitability right now.”

Being an astronomer can be exciting, rewarding work. That’s we included it as one of dozens of STEM roles students encounter with Twig Science, the investigation-based program developed for NGSS. In the Grade 5 module Patterns in the Night Sky, students meet an astronomer and learn all about how scientists gather information about the Universe. They learn about how to spot an exoplanet—and then try to find one themselves! And that’s not all they do as astronomers. They also investigate why some stars are brighter than others, why we only see them at night, and how they seem to move across the sky. They discover how to use the night sky to navigate, explore the constellations, and investigate the reasons why we don’t fall off the Earth!

Twig Science prepares students for a whole range of careers by enabling them to experience different STEM roles, from chemist to zoologist to architects. They go from working with a Hollywood special effects department to mapping real-life earthquakes as they happen all over the world. They read about and engage with scientists and engineers—from all walks of life—doing work that makes them think, “Yeah, I could do that.”

Visit Twig Science and get your students trying out dozens of possible futures.

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