Published: Thu, April 20, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

Another nearby planet may be just right for life

Another nearby planet may be just right for life

An worldwide team of scientists has announced the discovery of a new "super-Earth" exoplanet (a planet with more mass than Earth, but not quite as big as our gas giants) that could represent our best chance of finding life outside of our solar system.

The planet, named LHS 1140b, circles a small, faint red dwarf star at a distance conducive to liquid water, which increases the likelihood of life.

Proxima Centauri, Trappist-1 and LHS 1140 are all dwarf stars, which means daylight on any orbiting planets is likely a little more dim than on Earth. "The fact that the planet is rocky and in its star's habitable zone also raises its intrigue, because we may now have a planet suitable for the search for life as well".

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. When red dwarf stars are young, they emit radiation that can damage the atmospheres of planets around them.

But remember - this is a super-Earth!

Found in the constellation Cetus, LHS 1140b receives only about half as much sunlight as Earth does from its host star - but it's about 10 times closer to the M dwarf LHS 1140 than Earth is to the sun. The exoplanet is called LHS 1140b and is located just 39 light-years from Earth.

The researchers propose that LHS 1140b probably formed in a manner similar to Earth.

Geneva University says its HARPS planet searcher instrument was key in confirming the presence of the super-Earth.

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In 2015, Dittman was going over some observation data of small red stars collected by two robotically controlled observatories, called the MEarth Project, when he spotted something promising. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained.

"But the key part is for the first time in human history, we're going to have the ability to probe the atmospheres to see molecules in the atmospheres of temperate, rocky worlds orbiting nearby stars", he said.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, was made using the MEarth-South telescope in Cerro Tololo, Chile, which noticed significant dips in light as the planet passed in front of its star. Some estimates suggest they account for three-quarters of the stars in the galaxy. As the planet heated up, a steaming ocean of lava conceivably provided water vapor to replenish the atmosphere.

Scientists describe the exoplanet as the "best place to look for signs of life beyond the solar system", according to a press release on Wednesday.

Its density is one of the main reasons for considering the planet a possible location for extraterrestrial life. "Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time". Meaning, one side of the planet always faces the star while the other faces away. "And when the next generation of telescopes come online [The James Webb Space Telescope, and the ground-based Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and European-Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) ], we'll be in a great spot to find out what sorts of atmospheres planets around M dwarfs have".

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann said.

The seven known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system make transits, which fortunately allows for further study.

The closest Earth-sized habitable-zone planet to us, circling Proxima Centauri, lies only 4.2 light years away, but does not transit in front of its star relative to our point of view, so we can not see the planet or its atmosphere.

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