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Artist's illustration of K2-18b. Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Scientists have found water vapor in the atmosphere of a world about 8 times the mass of Earth.

Why it matters: While this isn't the "Earth 2.0" scientists have been hoping to find, the discovery does mark another step along the path toward finding a truly habitable world beyond our own.

  • "We have found water vapor in the atmospheres of gaseous planets before, and in the atmospheres of hot super-Earths, but this is the first time water vapor has been found in the atmosphere of a temperate super-Earth," NASA exoplanet researcher Jessie Christiansen told Axios via email.

Details: The planet, called K2-18b, orbits a star that's smaller and dimmer than the Sun and is located about 110 light-years from Earth, according to a new study detailing the finding in Nature Astronomy.

  • K2-18b orbits its star in what's known as the habitable zone, where researchers think that water can exist for extended periods of time on a world's surface.
  • The planet was discovered in 2015 by the Kepler Space Telescope, but for this study, the researchers used data gathered in 2016 and 2017 by the Hubble Space Telescope to investigate K2-18b's atmosphere in more detail.
  • Another study looking at K2-18b that has not yet been published suggests that the world could have a water cycle and perhaps even rain.

The catch: Even if scientists confirm that there is an abundance of liquid water on K2-18b, that doesn't necessarily mean that there's also life.

  • The planet's host star might be more active than our Sun, meaning that K2-18b could be bombarded with more radiation than the Earth, making it inhospitable to life as we know it.
  • Water is just one ingredient needed to make a habitable world, according to Christiansen, who is unaffiliated with the new study, so follow-up observations will be key if scientists hope to figure out if this planet could support life.

What's next: Telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope that is expected to launch in 2021, could help shed light on the habitability of K2-18b and others like it.

  • Future observatories will be able to collect detailed data on exoplanet atmospheres, but at the moment, researchers don't have the technology needed to be able to actually tell whether a planet in distant space is habitable or not.

Go deeper: We wouldn't know it if we found another Earth

Go deeper

Trump grants flurry of last-minute pardons

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

President Trump issued 73 pardons and commuted the sentences of 70 individuals early Wednesday, 11 hours from leaving office.

Why it matters: It's a last-minute gift to some of the president's loyalists and an evident use of executive power with only hours left of his presidency. Axios reported in December that Trump planned to grant pardons to "every person who ever talked to me."

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Trump revokes ethics order barring former aides from lobbying

Photo: Spencer Platt via Getty

Shortly after pardoning members of Congress and lobbyists convicted on corruption charges, President Trump revoked an executive order barring former officials from lobbying for five years after leaving his administration.

Why it matters: The order, which was signed eight days after he took office, was an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to "drain the swamp."

  • But with less than 12 hours left in office, Trump has now removed those limitations on his own aides.

Trump pardons former GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy

President Trump has pardoned Elliott Broidy, a former top Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws as part of a campaign to sway the administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests.

Why it matters: Broidy was a deputy finance chair for the Republican National Committee early in Trump’s presidency, and attempted to leverage his influence in the Trump administration on behalf of his clients. The president's decision to pardon Broidy represents one last favor for a prominent political ally.

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