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Nearby earth-like planet may be just right for life

Nearby earth-like planet may be just right for life”

An worldwide team of scientists has announced the discovery of a new "super-Earth" exoplanet (a planet with more mass than Earth, but not quite as big as our gas giants) that could represent our best chance of finding life outside of our solar system.

The planet is LHS 1140b - a "super-Earth" only about 1.4 times the size of our planet, but with about 6.6 times its mass - that circles its star in what astronomers call the habitable zone, a region around a star where water is able to exist on a planet's surface. ESO's HARPS instrument, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, then made crucial follow-up observations which confirmed the presence of the super-Earth.

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.

He added: "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science - searching for evidence of life beyond Earth". That's another box you can check off on the "likely to support life" chart. LHS 1140b is circling a red dwarf star, which emits less heat and light than the Sun. There are already concerns about the habitability of Proxima b, which, like LHS 1140b, orbits a red dwarf. Now, we know of thousands of such planets - and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.

An artist's rendering shows the newly-discovered LHS 1140b planet.

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LHS 1140b may seem like it's ideal now, but that wasn't always the case.

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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. This process could take 40 million years, Dittman said. A young red dwarf can easily strip away the water from the atmosphere of a planet forming within its vicinity, leading to a runaway similar to that on Venus. That cycle could preserve water on the planet, enhancing its potential to host life.

"It's just incredible what these amateurs are capable of", said Dittmann.

But more important than that are the climatological conditions, and its orbital distance from its star puts LHS 1140b in the "habitable zone" - thus meaning that the planet's surface temperature allows water to exist in all three of its states: liquid, solid and as a gas. Part of what has scientists so excited about LHS 1140 is that it spends less energy sterilizing its neighborhood than Trappist-1. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained.

"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. Other signs it could be habitable would be nitrogen molecules. "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". "We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like". 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.

"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.



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