Newly-discovered exoplanet could be best clue to life out there

Artist’s impression of the newly-discovered rocky exoplanet LHS 1140b.M. Weiss  CfA  ESO

The habitable zone is an area around a star where temperatures are at a level that could allow for liquid water.

In February, NASA announced it had discovered carbon-based organic material, similar to what may have been the building blocks for life on Earth, on Ceres, a dwarf planet located between Mars and Jupiter.

This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.

[2] Although the planet is located in the zone in which life as we know it could potentially exist, it probably did not enter this region until approximately forty million years after the formation of the red dwarf star.

M dwarf stars are characterised by the fact that they have masses less than 60% that of the Sun. It also has a circular orbit, which means it is a safer place for life to form since there are fewer collisions and extremes compared to planets with oblong orbits.

Further into the future-when new telescopes like ESO's Extremely Large Telescope are operating-it is likely that we will be able to make detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, and LHS 1140b is an exceptional candidate for such studies.

"There has been lots of debate about whether these planets can maintain a magnetic field (and if that's important for habitability) and if M-dwarf planets lose their atmospheres in their host star's active youth", principal investigator Jason Dittman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Astronomy.

Furthermore, scientists believe that the red dwarf, as we see it today, is emitting less high-energy radiation and spinning slower than other stars of its type, both of which are factors conducive to life. "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".

The newly discovered super-Earth LHS 1140b orbits in the habitable zone around a faint red dwarf star named LHS 1140, in the constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster).

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann said.

The new planet is 40 percent wider than Earth but it has 6.6 times Earth's mass, giving it a gravitational pull three times stronger, according to Charbonneau said. A person weighing 167 pounds would feel like 500 pounds on this planet. "Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time". The host star is also relatively close to Earth, which means its light is just bright enough to be used as a tool to peer into the planet's atmosphere.

[5] Unlike the TRAPPIST-1 system (eso1706 - ), no other exoplanets around LHS 1140 have been found. Multi-planet systems are thought to be common around red dwarfs, so it is possible that additional exoplanets have gone undetected so far because they are too small.

The discovery was initially made with the MEarth facility, which detected the first telltale, characteristic dips in light as the exoplanet passed in front of the star.

The latest discoveries have their founders at odds over which of the planets are the most promising.

This research was presented in a paper entitled "A temperate rocky super-Earth transiting a nearby cool star", by J. A. Dittmann et appear in the journal Nature on 20 April 2017.

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Seven outside astronomers said the Milky Way is big enough for all the discoveries to be exciting, requiring more exploring.

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