Another nearby planet may be just right for life

Tomas Mccoy
April 20, 2017

The team first spotted the rocky planet using the transit method, meaning they noticed a dip in the light output of its parent star, a red dwarf called LHS 1140, when it passed in front in our line of sight.

Another bit of good news is that terrestrial planet LHS 1140b as seen from earth passes nearly directly in front of its star, and that makes it a lot easier to do follow up research that Dittmann and his colleagues are already planning.

Though usually dim later in life, red dwarfs burn brightly when they're young and are known to emit powerful radiation that can damage the atmosphere of neighboring planets.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Astronomers have found yet another planet that seems to have just the right Goldilocks combination for life: Not so hot and not so cold.

Scientists believe that one of the major factors that governed the emergence of life on Earth was the presence of liquid water, and so telescopes target distant worlds capable of harboring this precious resource when searching for the hallmarks of life beyond our planet. It lies in the habitable zone and can potentially hold liquid water on its surface. It's not so far away, either.

"LHS 1140 b is the best candidate to look at for signs of life in the near future", said study co-author David Charbonneau, a Harvard University astronomer who leads the global network of telescopes that first observed the planet. That means in the next several years, new telescopes can spy its atmosphere in a targeted search for signs of life.

In a study now published in the journal Nature, scientists report their observations of an M dwarf star called LHS 1140.

Still, Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 system, also located roughly 40 light years away, stands out as a particularly intriguing.

Currently, the MEarth project is studying small stars that are less than a third the size of the Sun. That also means the habitable zone is much closer to the star. Effectively, the star and the planet orbit around a mutual centre, which falls somewhere inside the star for most planets. The newly discovered exoplanet is believed to have a density of around seven times that of Earth, and a diameter of 18,000 km (11,184 miles), making it 1.4 times the size of our blue marble. "But we know that things can live at very high pressures at the bottom of the ocean, and we know of lots of bacteria that can survive all sorts of insane environments, so I think it's not infeasible to imagine some form of life being ok with living on a super-Earth". "This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!" wrote Delfosse and Bonfils. Astronomers are also hoping they might spot other planets orbiting around LHS1140.

"We're definitely already applying for as much telescope time as we can get our hands on", Dittmann says, "to start looking at this planet's atmosphere".

There's more. The super-Earth exoplanet is orbiting a red dwarf star, much smaller than our Sun.

While these planets are 40 lightyears away, LHS 1140b is a negligible one lightyear closer.

The next step will be to see if the planet has an atmosphere - a goal that should be hugely helped by the James Webb orbital telescope, due to be launched in October 2018 as a successor to the fabled Hubble.

Artist's impression of the super-Earth exoplanet LHS 1140b.

"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo.

"For now, we do not have the technology to travel at a velocity close to the speed of light", Astudillo-Defru said. They want to confirm the existence of the planet's atmosphere and find out if it has molecular oxygen or water, and if it's similar to Earth.

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