Hycean worlds: A new class of exoplanet that may support life
More than 4,400 exoplanets have been identified to date, and the majority of our attention has been focused on Earth-like worlds in the search for life outside our solar system.
Astronomers have now classified a new class of exoplanets known as “Hycean” worlds, which could be a promising site to look for indications of life.
Since Earth is the only place where we know for certain that life exists, it makes it logical to begin the hunt for alien life on Earth-like worlds. But, even on our own planet, life continues to surprise us by appearing in circumstances we thought were too hostile, such as extremely arid deserts or the frigid darkness beneath polar ice.
Some of the most intriguing sites to look for aliens in our solar systems, such as Europa’s ice oceans or Titan’s liquid-methane floodplains, do not appear to be especially hospitable to us.
However, Cambridge astronomers have identified a form of exoplanet that may have gone unnoticed in the quest for life, the mini Neptune.
These are miniature copies of our own Neptune, complete with thick atmospheres, rocky or ice layers, and, in some cases, aqueous oceans. They are typically 1.6 to 3.9 times the width of Earth.
The team has now defined a subclass of these mini-Neptunes. Hot mini-Neptunes with hydrogen-rich atmospheres and vast oceans on their surfaces are known as Hycean worlds. The heat and pressure would not be appealing to us humans, but it is possible that some types of life would find it ideal.
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