A group of international astronomers have found that many exoplanets two to four times the size of Earth have water on their surface, according to new research presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Boston.
Astronomers first uncovered exoplanets orbiting distant starts in 1992. Since that time, scientists have spent years attempting to uncover their composition. The new research — which comes from data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission — shows that many known worlds could be up to 50 percent water.
Such exoplanets are exciting because they could well change the way researchers search for life in the universe.
“It was a huge surprise to realize that there must be so many water-worlds,” said lead researcher Li Zeng, a researcher at Harvard University, according to Science Daily.
Researchers found that almost all of the 4000 confirmed exoplanets on record fall into one of two categories. They either have an average planetary radius that is 1.5 times Earth’s, or they have one that is 2.5 times Earth’s. That distinction helped the team piece together the internal structure of the distant bodies.
Models created from the data showed that exoplanets with a radius 1.5 times Earth’s are generally rocky, while the ones that have radii 2.5 Earth’s are likely water worlds.
Though water is not as common on such places as it is on Earth, and while the surface temperatures are much too hot to support conventional organisms, the exoplanets could still offer new insight into the universe. Researchers plan to continue exploring them and potentially gain more insight into their mechanisms in the future.
That is because the presence of water, regardless of other conditions, always means there is a chance for life. Even so, the team also states that just because a world has water does not mean there is life. More research has to be done on individual world’s before such claims could be made.
“One has to realize that, although water appears to be precious and rarer on Earth and other inner solar system terrestrial planets, it is in fact one of the most abundant substance in the universe, since oxygen is the third most abundant element after hydrogen and helium,” added Zeng, according to Discover Magazine.