One Third of Known Planets May Be Enormous Ocean Worlds

By John Wenz | August 17, 2018 5:45 pm
A new model of Super-Earths implies many of these planets are covered in enormous, thick oceans. (Credit: NASA)

A new model of Super-Earths implies many of these planets are covered in enormous, thick oceans. (Credit: NASA)

Water is a key ingredient for life — and new research suggests we might find it all over the galaxy.

Scientists looked at the mass of Super-Earths, a kind of planet common across the cosmos but not present in our own solar system. These rocky worlds are several times larger than Earth, but the team’s analysis of known Super-Earths reveals something astounding: Many of them may be literal water worlds.

According to the research, many of these planets may be half water. By comparison, water is just a tiny fraction of Earth’s mass. But that doesn’t mean these Super-Earths are friendly places to live. The Harvard-led team determined that those planets with 1.5 times Earth’s radius or below would be terrestrial, or rocky.

Super-Earths above 2.5 Earth radius might more like tiny versions of Neptune or Uranus. The two water-dominated planets in our solar system are far from life friendly. Such hulking Super-Earths would be enshrouded by a mostly-water vapor atmosphere. Further below, there might be oceans at extreme pressures and temperatures — between 390 and 930 degrees Fahrenheit (200 to 500 Celsius).

But that doesn’t necessarily preclude life.

“Life could develop in certain near-surface layers on these water worlds when the pressure, temperature and chemical conditions are appropriate,” says the study’s lead author, Li Zeng of Harvard University. Zeng also believes that these planets may form more like a gas giant, with a core deep underneath a dense atmosphere.

“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,” Zeng said.

And based on the team’s modeling, up to 35 percent of known planets might be water worlds. That could mean the coming years will lead to the discovery of a whole lot of exo-oceans — and a whole host of new questions.

The scientists presented their research Friday at the Goldschmidt Conference, the world’s preeminent conference on geochemistry.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    … Water phase diagram

    … Water vapor is the singular atmospheric Greenhouse gas

  • EquusMtn

    This is very interesting from an academic perspective, but what I’m waiting for is the discovery of an exoplanet that’s almost exactly earth mass. Why? Because in my mind, aside from sheer distance from earth, gravity is the greatest limiting factor in finding a planet that humans could colonize. If the gravity is too weak, there will be adverse health effects on would-be colonists (although this problem might be mitigated by mandating regular periods of time spent in 1g-simulating centrifuges). If the planet’s gravity is even a little over 1g, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to visit even for a short while. Imagine how sluggish you would feel on a planet where virtually every move you made was, say, 10% more difficult. Your arms, legs, every part of your body is heavier, and your heart has to work harder to get blood to your head and back up from your feet. I’m thinking travel agents wouldn’t get many bookings to that world. So find me a 0.95g planet and I’ll be on the next spaceship.

    • Lorie Franceschi

      It would it not be instead of being sluggish, which at first would happen, but the longer you are there your body would become climatized to the conditions? It might be like going from sea level to the mountains. Hard to do strenuous activity at first because your lungs are not used to the less amount of air at 7,000 ft as there is at 0 ft. After a while, you are fine and can go about doing most of what you did at sea level. This is why Olympic athletes train in Colorado.

      • EquusMtn

        You have a point, but I would also point out that your body adapts to high altitude mainly by producing more red blood cells, plus some other adaptations. In other words, there’s a natural internal mechanism for dealing with altitude. There’s no place on earth where gravity is significantly different. so we’ve evolved no mechanism for dealing with increased gravity. You might adapt to higher gravity, but it’s hard for me to believe it would be either pleasant or beneficial, especially if was more than a few percentage points over 1g.

        • Lorie Franceschi

          Me as a race would be able to survive for short periods of time in a higher gravity situation. How long I have no idea. Fighter pilots can withstand high gravities for short periods of time. To survive on a planet with even a slightly higher gravity, our technology has to be a lot higher than it is today. I believe that the technology to get to that planet would be the parent of the technology to survive.


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