Newly discovered exoplanet best place to search for life, astronomers say

Guillermo Lane
April 20, 2017

Almost seven times more massive than Earth, it is probably made in good part of rock, the researchers say in a study in this week's Nature.

Whether there is actually water on the planet or not depends on the composition of its atmosphere and other factors, including the presence of a magnetic field, such as the one Earth has, but the most important thing is for the planet to "fulfil the requirements to have water", which means that it must be in its star's habitable zone, Murgas said.

Astronomers have discovered another planet that could support life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The fact that LHS 1140b is a super-Earth is a bit concerning to any hopes that - if humans ever manage to master interstellar travel - we could one day settle the planet and establish a colony. It receives roughly half as much sunlight as Earth gets from the sun but even so LHS 1140b orbits in the "Goldilocks zone" - a habitable sweet spot where conditions are not too cold and not too hot for liquid water to form on the surface of the exoplanet. Last year, astronomers raised the prospect of life on Proxima b, a planet circling our nearest star a mere four light years away.

"What I truly find exciting is that we have a potentially habitable, rocky planet orbiting a nearby star that is now very calm and stable and doesn't flare", Dittman said.

They suggest that the small size of the host star and its proximity to us mean that telescopes might be able to search for specific gases in the planet's atmosphere if it has one.

He calls the planet a "Super Earth", not because it's any better than our blue-green sphere, but because it "is somewhere between the size of the Earth (the largest rocky planet in the Solar System) and Neptune".

The planet, LHS 1140b, was initially found using the MEarth facility run by Harvard University astronomers, which had previously helped discover the potentially-habitable GJ 1132 b exoplanet as well. It is located in the constellation Cetus, 39 light years or 230 trillion miles away.

The discovery is quite unique because LHS 1140 is a small cool star, not as active energetically as other stars which other exoplanets have been found to orbit. Earlier this year, Nasa announced the discovery of exoplanets around a star called Trappist-1. This planet, designated LHS 1140 b, orbits its star every 25 days. The TRAPPIST-1 system is about as far from Earth as LHS 1140b is, so its seven planets are also in a prime position for further study.

But LHS 1140, according to team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru, "spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars".

This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.

However, scientists believe that LHS 1140b may yield better results when it comes to aliens. Once it's completed, JWT will be the most powerful space-based telescope ever deployed - it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of all of these planets and more.

"With this planet and TRAPPIST-1, our list is growing larger and larger, and when the next telescopes are built it's just going to completely change everything", he said.

The Webb telescope is expected to launch next year, but the Giant Magellan telescope won't be online until 2025, and the EELT won't be working until 2024.

"We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman.

He is excited about eventually answering the question of whether or not we're alone in the unvierse. "We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen".

Other reports by TheDigitalNewspaper

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