Astronomers discover 'Super-Earth' planet that could support life

LHS 1140 artist impression

LHS 1140 artist impression

Astronomers have discovered another planet with the potential for life - this one a "super-Earth" and the leading contender in our intergalactic search for aliens.

The rocky planet, named LHS 1140b, orbits a red dwarf star 40 light years away. Despite this lack of stellar energy, LHS 1140b is in the habitable zone of its star, which means that it could support life.

Artist's impression of the super-Earth exoplanet LHS 1140b. As LHS 1140b passes in front of its host stars, astronomers noted a dimming effect and were able to discern the planets approximate size and mass. The exoplanet is in the Cetus constellation, which is relatively close at just 40 light years away.

LHS 1140b orbits in the HZ of its parent star, which is an important tick in the "can-host-liquid-water" column, but there are a myriad of other factors that could prevent the world from maintaining the vital asset.

This also allowed them to be sure that the planet is rocky, said HARPS team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru, because HARPS is the most precise instrument that can measure the "wobble" of the planet as the star tugs on it.

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.

The planet is 10 times closer to the star than Earth is to the sun, but red dwarfs are much smaller and much cooler than the giant inferno that keeps us warm.

In our Solar System, such a planet would be so scorched that any atmosphere and surface water would be stripped away.

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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.

"But for Proxima Centauri b, we only know the minimum mass and for the Trappist-1 planets, we know their size and their mass is not very well known - except for one, which we know isn't rocky", fellow author Xafier Bonfils from the University of Grenoble told WIRED.

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.

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the previous year we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too. 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.

This super-Earth, dubbed LHS 1140b, may be astronomer's best candidate yet in the search for alien life, the researchers claim. "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".

So if there is water, the stuff of life, it can exist encouragingly in liquid form and not as rock-solid ice or vapour. "We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman.

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.

Since the concept was first presented in 1953, many stars have been shown to have a Goldilocks area, and some of them have one or several planets in this zone.

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