Another Nearby Planet Found That May Be Just Right For Life

by Dominic Parks April 20, 2017, 8:51
Another Nearby Planet Found That May Be Just Right For Life

A light year is the distance light travels in a year - almost six trillion miles.

The first subtle signs of the planet's presence were recorded in 2014, but no one noticed until Jason Dittmann, then at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, re-analyzed the data. Unlike TRAPPIST-1 and Proxima Centauri, two stars that host planets in the habitable zone but have active flares that could ruin the chances their planets have atmospheres, LHS 1140 is a relatively calm, older star.

The planet circles the faint dwarf star LHS 1140 in the constellation Cetus and lies at the heart of the habitable zone - the orbital band where temperatures are mild enough to allow liquid surface water.

Most of these planets, also known as Super Earths, were thought to be made from gas but Mr Tan said the new planet was definitely rocky. Details of the discovery are reported in the journal Nature.

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. The planet was discovered in 2014 with the MEarth-South telescope array at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, using a method that measured the faint dimming of starlight as it passed across LHS 1140's disk.

The study of alien worlds is entering its next phase as astronomers amass the best planets outside our Solar System to look for signs of life.

In February, NASA announced it had discovered carbon-based organic material, similar to what may have been the building blocks for life on Earth, on Ceres, a dwarf planet located between Mars and Jupiter.

The vast site, containing as much water as all of Earth's seas, could also potentially be a habitat for life.

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. That makes astronomers more confident that this one is rocky, compared to other recent discoveries.

To top it off, LHS 1140b was spotted in the habitable zone.

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However, its mass is around seven times bigger than Earth's, which means it is dense.

In this case, the planet's large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years.

Still, he said he's confident that astronomers will find a habitable planet soon, be it LHS 1140b or another.

So if there is water, the stuff of life, it can exist encouragingly in liquid form and not as rock-solid ice or vapour.

LHS 1140b is a great world to study also because of the star it orbits: a red dwarf - a cool star that's less than one-third the size of our Sun.

LHS 1140b is 10 times closer to its respective star than Earth is to the Sun, but only receives about half the sunlight.

The orbit is seen nearly edge-on from Earth and as the exoplanet passes in front of the star on each of its orbits it blocks a little of its light every 25 days.

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

"What I truly find exciting is that we have a potentially habitable, rocky planet orbiting a nearby star that is now very calm and stable and doesn't flare", Dittman said.

Given all these possibilities, Dittmann and his team are eager to keep studying this planet with more ground-based telescopes, as well as the space-based Hubble telescope.

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