Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

20 April, 2017, 08:53 | Author: Lorena Waters
  • This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host a small faint red star named LHS 1140.                  M. Weiss  CfA

It's about 5 billion years old, while Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

A light year is the distance light travels in a year - almost six trillion miles.

"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. The TRAPPIST-1 system is about as far from Earth as LHS 1140b is, so its seven planets are also in a prime position for further study.

The new exoplanet orbits LHS 1140, which is a faint red dwarf that is much smaller and cooler than the Sun.

Most of these planets, also known as Super Earths, were thought to be made from gas but Mr Tan said the new planet was definitely rocky.

We have the plenty of planets to look at.

The quest to discover definitively whether life could have been sustained elsewhere in the universe has been intensifying since the first planet outside our solar system was found in 1992.

The planet was discovered by observing the tiny reduction in the light from the star when the planet passed in front of it. Mr Tan said the minute dip in light was like "observing a candle burning in Albany from Perth".

The vast site, containing as much water as all of Earth's seas, could also potentially be a habitat for life.

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Over the past year, other astronomers have detected potentially habitable exoplanets that are closer, including Proxima Centauri b and the TRAPPIST-1 worlds. But after the discovery of LHS 1140b, astronomers were clouded out from locations where it should be visible.

It could be just like Earth, except bigger. It has a density that suggests that it has a rocky surface with iron core.

Further observations from the High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, led the researchers to estimate the planet's mass at 6.6 times that of Earth. "And when the next generation of telescopes come online [The James Webb Space Telescope, and the ground-based Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and European-Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) ], we'll be in a great spot to find out what sorts of atmospheres planets around M dwarfs have". This ocean may have infused the atmosphere with steam for a prolonged period, which would have effectively replenished the planet's water supply.

It has likely retained most of its atmosphere and passes in front of its parent star as it orbits, blocking a little of its light every 25 days. And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water.

The star it orbits is a red dwarf, a group of the smallest and lowest temperature stars, in the constellation Cetus and is only about one-fifth the size of our Sun.

Local astronomer Thiam-Guan Tan, a retired engineer with a fascination for the stars, was part of an global team that concentrated on the search for planets in a particular part of space a year ago.

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", said Dittmann. The scientists used the MEarth-South telescope array to monitor the brightness of the star LHS 1140, starting in 2014.

More observations using the Hubble Space Telescope are underway and the researchers are already using everything they can to study the planet and its atmosphere.

"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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