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Newly-discovered exoplanet could be best clue to life out there

20 April 2017
Newly-discovered exoplanet could be best clue to life out there

In a paper detailing the discovery, the researchers also say they believe the planet has an atmosphere, adding that both star LHS 1140 and planet LHS 1140b are so close to Earth that "telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future".

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 fact that the planet is rocky and in its star's habitable zone also raises its intrigue, because we may now have a planet suitable for the search for life as well". That's another box you can check off on the "likely to support life" chart.

Follow-up observations carried out by a range of telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's HARPS instrument then went on to characterize the planet's mass, density, and orbital period.

An exoplanet that orbits a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth may harbor alien life, because it is within its star's habitable zone.

"The density that we measure shows that LHS 1140b is primarily composed of rocky material like iron and silicates, the same type of things that the Earth is composed of", Dittman said.

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.

According to the measurements, LHS 1140b has a diameter 1.4 times that of Earth and a mass 6.6 times that of our own planet.

Artist's rendition of exoplanet LHS 1140b.

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. But after the discovery of LHS 1140b, astronomers were clouded out from locations where it should be visible. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life. In contrast, LHS 1140 is slowly rotating (130 days), and we haven't seen any flares from the star. "LHS 1140 is brighter at optical wavelengths because it's slightly bigger than the TRAPPIST-1 star".

For that duration, it would be easy for the planet to lose all of its potential water for good. This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.

"With this planet and TRAPPIST-1, our list is growing larger and larger, and when the next telescopes are built it's just going to completely change everything", he said.

[4] The planet around Proxima Centauri (eso1629 - http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1629/ ) is much closer to Earth, but it probably does not transit its star, making it very hard to determine whether it holds an atmosphere. Once it's completed, JWT will be the most powerful space-based telescope ever deployed - it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of all of these planets and more.

Regarding the age of the planet, the authors of the study said that it probably formed in a manner similar to Earth and its star is probably 5 billion years old, about the same age as the Sun, although the age of M-class stars is hard to determine for a variety of factors, the Spanish researcher added. "It's great that we have two systems, one in each flavor, so that we can actually see if this high-energy radiation actually does make a difference".