Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

by Fredrick Graves April 20, 2017, 9:12
Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Zach Berta-Thompson, an assistant professor in CU Boulder's Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, is a co-author of the new research.

A new, nearby exoplanet could be just the boilerplate needed to find out if life could exist in untold numbers of star systems. Even the researchers are having some fun encouraging the rivalry between LHS 1140b, Proxima b, a potentially Earth-like exoplanet discovered just five light years away in 2016, and the seven Earth-sized planets recently spotted around the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.

Although it is 1.4 times the size of Earth, its mass is seven times greater, implying a dense world made of rock with an iron core.

Astronomers say the planet is more likely to have preserved an atmosphere as its star emits less radiation than many other red dwarfs, the most common type of star in the Milky Way.

Wednesday, another red dwarf star is making headlines with the announcement of a "super earth" found orbiting around the small red star LHS 1140.

The new planet was discovered thanks to the MEarth-South telescope network devoted exclusively to seeking out exo-planets.

"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in decades", said Jason Dittmann of the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, who led the team.

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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 newfound planet is described in a paper appearing in the April 20thissue of the journal Nature. Meaning, one side of the planet always faces the star while the other faces away. By measuring how much light this planet blocks, the team determined that it is about 11,000 miles in diameter, or about 40 percent larger than Earth.

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. Therefore, some or all of the others also might not be rocky. Some scientists worry that the frequent solar storms from Proxima b's host star could strip it of its atmosphere, dashing our chances of finding biosignatures there.

"M dwarf stars, which have masses less than 60% that of the sun, make up 75% of the population of the stars in the galaxy", the study authors wrote. Large, next-generation telescopes will be needed to tease out these subtle signals.

"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 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". This planet, designated LHS 1140 b, orbits its star every 25 days. When the star was young, it would have bathed the planet in a harsh ultraviolet glare that could have stripped any water from the atmosphere, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect like we see on Venus. Powered by heat from naturally radioactive elements, that churning ocean of lava may have fed steam into the atmosphere long after the star calmed to its current, steady glow. That cycle could preserve water on the planet, enhancing its potential to host life.

"I think that even during the star's active early lifetime that water can possibly survive to the present day on these planets", Dittman says.

Two giant telescopes under construction in Chile might be powerful enough, if aimed at 1140b, to recognize any oxygen molecules of the sort that animals need to breathe, assuming 1140b is swathed in oxygen.


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