Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Janie Parker
April 20, 2017

"We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like". The James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch into space in 2018, could also search 1140b for ozone, which is made of oxygen.

This lava would have fed steam into the atmosphere, which eventually rained down as water over the course of billions of years, with the planet itself being around five billion years old. And it may even have an atmosphere.

To confirm the planet's existence the team of astronomers used three professional telescopes and the help of an amateur in Perth, Australia.

Make that super-sized, because it belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

"This is the one we've been searching for", said David Charbonneau, a Canadian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-author of the research published in Nature.

Super-Earths exist in between. So it's possible there's more super-Earths near LHS1140b, scientists just haven't seen them yet.

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.

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.

Still, Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 system, also located roughly 40 light years away, stands out as a particularly intriguing. It orbits a small M-dwarf star every 24 days.

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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. That is proportional to the planet's mass. That suggests it's most likely made of rock with a dense iron core.

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. The exoplanet had a "hellish" past. Despite this lack of stellar energy, LHS 1140b is in the habitable zone of its star, which means that it could support life.

But if the planet can shield and hide its water source from this heat, it would be saved, Dittman said. If the atmosphere is thick and full of carbon dioxide, like Venus, it would be too hot to hold life or water. Moreover, it is also close enough for ground-based telescopes on Earth to study its atmosphere.

What is the range of the habitable zone? Too close, and the object will burn.

But if it's too far, any water will freeze, as is seen on Mars. Just the right distance and equilibrium is achieved. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life. LHS 1140b is 10 times closer to its star than we are to the sun, but it only receives half as much light because the star is so dim.

LHS 1140b's host star spins slower and emits less radiation, unlike the TRAPPIST-1 star. Now, we know of thousands of such planets - and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.

"We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman.

Julien de Wit, one of the researchers that discovered the TRAPPIST-1 planets, agrees. "But hopefully someday very soon we can start confronting those theories with real data!" Other signs it could be habitable would be nitrogen molecules.

With Earth Day fast approaching, it's once again time for us to take stock of how we are treating our planet. Both are ticks in the theoretical boxes for habitable worlds.

Other reports by TheDailyFarc

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