Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life


Artist's impression. Credit M. Weiss CfA

Although the faint red dwarf star LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, because red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun is, the super-Earth lies in the middle of the habitable zone and receives around half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth does.

The other special thing about this planet is that it's about 5 billion years old, and according to Dittmann, "Five billion years should be more than enough time for life to develop [if it's easy to develop, no one knows!] So this is definitely a good thing".

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. The star is "almost as bright as you could possibly get without making life hard", he says.

When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them.

On February 22, other researchers said they had discovered seven planets, similar in size and mass to Earth, near an "ultracool" red dwarf called Trappist-1, 39 light years from Earth. The host star is also relatively close to Earth, which means its light is just bright enough to be used as a tool to peer into the planet's atmosphere.

Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Observatory of the Sciences of the Universe in Grenoble, France, said LHS 1140b now "joins Trappist-1 at the head of the rankings". Red dwarf stars usually have a few planets in their orbit, like TRAPPIST-1.

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"Given its large surface gravity and cool insolation, the planet may have retained its atmosphere despite the greater luminosity (compared to the present-day) of its host star in its youth", the study authors wrote. Now, we know of thousands of such planets - and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.

In the future, they want to use HARPS to continue observing the star and see if there are more planets around it.

In this case, the planet's large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. Accordingly, the HZ of the red dwarf occupies a range of space roughly ten times closer to its central ball of fire than the HZ in our own solar system.

Dubbed LHS 1140b, the planet was first spotted in September 2014 by a group of telescopes in the mountains of southern Chile.

The habitable zone is also dependent on the type of star the planet orbits.

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.

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Scientists believe that liquid water and an atmosphere are two prerequisites needed for life.

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

"Right now we don't have measurements of LHS 1140b's atmosphere or the atmosphere on other M dwarf rocky planets, and so a lot of this work is based upon theory and calculations", says Dittmann.

The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995, but thanks to new techniques and especially NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope, the number of them has exploded in recent years.

Make that super-sized, because it belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

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