Published: Thu, April 20, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jose Becker

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

A newly-discovered exoplanet could be the most promising sign yet in the search for life beyond Earth, astronomers say.

According to Harvard's MEarth Project, which searches the universe for potentially habitable exoplanets, the rocky planet LHS 1140b orbits a star that is only 40 light years away.

"We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science - searching for evidence of life beyond Earth", Dittmann said. The star is "almost as bright as you could possibly get without making life hard", he says.

LHS 1140b's host star spins slower and emits less radiation, unlike the TRAPPIST-1 star.

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. It is located in the constellation Cetus, 39 light years or 230 trillion miles away. He uses mathematical modelling to boost his observing techniques and maintains that he was simply "in the right place at the right time" to observe LHS 1140b. An orbiting planet's tiny gravitational tug causes its star to wobble - and that wobble can be used to calculate the planet's mass. It orbits a small M-dwarf star every 24 days. LHS 1140b is 10 times closer to its star than we are to the sun, but it only receives half as much light because the star is so dim.

In general, one big problem with the habitable planets scientists have found around red dwarfs - and this goes for a few of the seven they've found on Trappist-1 - and Proxima b, another found previous year - is that they are so close to their star that the stellar radiation that is bombarding the planets can literally strip away any atmosphere.

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Earlier this year, NASA announced the discovery of no less than seven Earth-sized planets circling a star called TRAPPIST-1. That suggests the planet is dense enough to be rocky. Unfortunately, when scientists refer to to new discoveries like Proxima b and the seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system as "potentially habitable", they're just referring to the bare-bones standards for that label. Not a lot of super-Earths have been found to sit in the habitable zone, so this rare find raises the possibility that there could be a lot more planets like this one.

Furthermore, scientists believe that the red dwarf, as we see it today, is emitting less high-energy radiation and spinning slower than other stars of its type, both of which are factors conducive to life. Further observations were then made by the European Southern Observatory's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), from which, among other things, astronomers were able to calculate LHS 1140b's size, density and orbital period, as well as take an informed stab at its age.

Researchers believe it may be one of the best candidates for a closer look in the future by the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA will launch in 2018.

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann acknowledged. "Once the star had calmed down a bit, the magma would cool and start to release its water and other gases, forming the planet's atmosphere".

"This is the first one where we actually know it's rocky", Charbonneau said.

The scientists aren't wasting any time following up with observations: the next transit (where the planet crosses in front of the star) will occur on October 26 and they've booked several telescopes in Chile to search for signatures of oxygen molecules in the planet's atmosphere.

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