Exoplanet LHS 1140b may be most habitable yet found

20 April, 2017, 09:28 | Author: Sam Montgomery
  • LHS 1140 artist impression

Today researchers at Harvard-Smithsonian made an exciting announcement: a newly discovered planet may be the best candidate yet for finding life outside of our solar system.

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 European Southern Observatory is calling it a "super-Earth" because the planet is both larger and heavier than Earth - its radius is about 40 percent greater than our planet and it is 6.6 times more massive.

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. "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science: searching for evidence of life beyond Earth", he said.

When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them.

A super-Earth is an extrasolar planet with a mass higher than Earth's, but substantially below the masses of the Solar System's giants, Uranus and Neptune, which contain 15 and 17 Earth masses respectively.

Another bit of good news is that terrestrial planet LHS 1140b as seen from earth passes nearly directly in front of its star, and that makes it a lot easier to do follow up research that Dittmann and his colleagues are already planning. The exoplanet is called LHS 1140b and is located just 39 light-years from Earth.

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LHS 1140b orbits in the HZ of its parent star, which is an important tick in the "can-host-liquid-water" column, but there are a myriad of other factors that could prevent the world from maintaining the vital asset. An orbiting planet's tiny gravitational tug causes its star to wobble - and that wobble can be used to calculate the planet's mass.

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.

Compared to Earth, the new planet is big, pushing near the size limit for rocky planets. Unfortunately, when scientists refer to to new discoveries like Proxima b and the seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system as "potentially habitable", they're just referring to the bare-bones standards for that label. The planet was discovered in 2014 with the MEarth-South telescope array at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, using a method that measured the faint dimming of starlight as it passed across LHS 1140's disk.

In the future, they want to use HARPS to continue observing the star and see if there are more planets around it. These star types have become popular targets for exoplanet hunters, since they're also common throughout the galaxy and it's easier to spot planets around them. The new planet, designated LHS 1140b, has a diameter of around 11,000 miles.

'The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1, ' two members of the worldwide team, Drs Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, said.

However, it's possible that a planet like LHS 1140 b would have had a magma ocean for millions of years, which would have released water into the air and replenished the atmosphere long after the star had calmed down. 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.

Since the star it orbits is quite small and relatively close to us, it may be possible for current telescopes and those now under construction to determine if the planet has an atmosphere.

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