Newly discovered exoplanet LHS 1140b could host alien life
'This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade, ' said lead author Dr Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A planet known as LHS 1140b is orbiting a red dwarf star some 40 light years from Earth - and experts believe life could be residing there. Even though it's only about 1.4 times the size Earth, it's about seven times as massive, indicating that it is probably a rocky world with a dense iron core. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained.
Astronomers have found roughly 20 Earth-sized planets that might support liquid water, according to a database maintained by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.
This new big planet is rocky, like Earth.
This is the distance from a star where the temperature is not too hot, nor too cold, but just right.
In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet's path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study.
The exoplanet takes 25 days to orbit its star and despite being 10 times closer to LHS 1140 than Earth is to the Sun, it only receives about half the "sunlight" that Earth does.
Earlier this year, NASA announced the discovery of no less than seven Earth-sized planets circling a star called TRAPPIST-1.
The super-Earth and its parent star are located in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, 39 light years from the Sun, thus - relatively speaking - putting it in our galactic "neighbourhood", according to Felipe Murgas, the coauthor of the study and a researcher with Spain's Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics.
The star that LHS 1140b orbits is both small and faint.
In contrast with the TRAPPIST-1 star, LHS 1140 spins slowly and does not emit much high-energy radiation, which also may help the likelihood of life on its planet. Effectively, the star and the planet orbit around a mutual centre, which falls somewhere inside the star for most planets.
LHS 1140b is 1.4 times the size of Earth, with a diameter of approximately 18,000 kilometres. "We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like". "This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!" wrote Delfosse and Bonfils.
The planet is orbiting a star about 40 light-years from Earth.
But LHS 1140b is exceptional because of its location. "This star that LHS 1140b orbits seems to be quiet, so it's not going to damage the planet's atmosphere or anything on its surface", Dittmann explained. If either of those telescopes can't quite suss it out, future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope might make it easier.
Indeed, we won't know much more about any of these planets' habitability until we can observe their atmospheres, which will require more powerful telescopes than today's state-of-the-art.
Hearing the phrase "habitable exoplanet" inevitably conjures up visions of another planet like Earth, teeming with vast oceans, swaths of green lands, and a crisp, gaseous veneer that keeps the whole thing together.
To confirm the planet's existence, Dittmann and his team enlisted three academic telescopes and one operated by a crackerjack amateur in Perth, Australia, who kept vigil when bad weather sidelined the pros.
As LHS 1140 is much smaller and cooler than our own star, it doesn't throw out anything close to the levels of radiation that our Sun is capable of emitting. "But hopefully someday very soon we can start confronting those theories with real data!"
More observations using the Hubble Space Telescope are underway and the researchers are already using everything they can to study the planet and its atmosphere.
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