The Hycean Paradigm in Exoplanet Habitability - VIRTUAL
Atmospheric characterisation of habitable-zone exoplanets is a major frontier of exoplanet science. The detection of atmospheric signatures of habitable Earth-like exoplanets is challenging due to their small planet-star size contrast and thin atmospheres with high mean molecular weight. Recently, a new class of habitable sub-Neptune exoplanets, called Hycean worlds, have been proposed, which are expected to be temperate ocean-covered worlds with H2-rich atmospheres. Their large sizes and extended atmospheres, compared to rocky planets of the same mass, make Hycean worlds significantly more accessible to atmospheric spectroscopy. Several temperate Sub-Neptunes have been identified in recent studies as candidate Hycean worlds orbiting nearby M dwarfs that make them highly conducive for transmission spectroscopy with JWST. Recently, we reported the first JWST spectrum of a possible Hycean world, K2-18 b, with detections of multiple carbon-bearing molecules in its atmosphere. In this talk, we will present constraints on the atmospheric composition of K2-18 b and on the temperature structure, clouds/hazes, atmospheric extent, chemical disequilibrium and the possibility of a habitable ocean underneath the atmosphere. We will discuss new observational and theoretical developments in the characterisation of candidate Hycean worlds, and their potential for habitability. Our findings demonstrate the unprecedented potential of JWST for characterising Hycean worlds, and temperate sub-Neptunes in general, and open a new era of atmospheric characterisation of habitable-zone exoplanets with JWST.