This New Super-Earth is the Best Hope for Finding Alien Life

20 April, 2017, 09:40 | Author: Delbert Rhodes
  • Scientists discover super-Earth that could harbour life

"When it passed between the star and the Earth, it dimmed the light of the star, and we were able to measure this dimming and to identify LHS 1140b", lead author Jason Dittmann, from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (US), told IBTimes UK.

The new exoplanet orbits LHS 1140, which is a faint red dwarf that is much smaller and cooler than the Sun. Its mass, however, is nearly seven times that of our own planet, leading to the assumption that it likely comprises rock encasing a solid iron core.

There's been compelling evidence lately that some of these planets around red dwarfs could, in fact, retain an atmosphere.That's the case of GJ 1132b, a hellish world with Venus-like temperatures around an M-dwarf star that, despite all odds, seems to hold on to an atmosphere.

A joint group of scientists from the European Southern Observatory announced on Wednesday that the group has found a planet 40 light years away from Earth that could potentially support life.

A newly discovered exoplanet is causing excitement among astronomers as it has the potential to give us the best opportunity ever to find alien life.

"This planet's orbit places it within the habitable zone, where conditions may be right for liquid water - neither too hot that the water boils off nor too cold that it is always frozen solid".

"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.

The planet, LHS 1140b, was initially found using the MEarth facility run by Harvard University astronomers, which had previously helped discover the potentially-habitable GJ 1132 b exoplanet as well. The exoplanet is in the Cetus constellation, which is relatively close at just 40 light years away.

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The MEarth-South telescope array, located at Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile, searches for planets by monitoring the brightness of nearby, small stars.

An analysis of the resulting data determined that the planet orbits the star every 25 days, at a distance well within Mercury's orbit around our own sun (roughly 7.4 million miles). One of these factors is the red dwarf around which the distant world orbits. 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.

Over the past year, other astronomers have detected potentially habitable exoplanets that are closer, including Proxima Centauri b and the TRAPPIST-1 worlds.

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. Now, we know of thousands of such planets - and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.

"There's definitely a concern that high energy radiation from M dwarfs might "spoil" the habitability of their planets", Dittmann said.

The researchers propose that LHS 1140b probably formed in a manner similar to Earth.

An artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope that NASA plans to launch in 2018. The TRAPPIST-1 system is about as far from Earth as LHS 1140b is, so its seven planets are also in a prime position for further study. LHS 1140b is circling a red dwarf star, which emits less heat and light than the Sun. "We'll basically be taking a look at this planet right out of the starting gate", says Dittmann. "Because LHS 1140 is nearby, telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future". And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water.

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