Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Exoplanet LHS 1140b Discovered: A Super-Earth in the Habitable Zone

Exoplanet LHS 1140b Discovered: A Super-Earth in the Habitable Zone

Long-exposure photograph of the MEarth-South telescope array, which helped to find the exoplanet LHS 1140b.

The new discovery belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

"The density that we measure shows that LHS 1140b is primarily composed of rocky material like iron and silicates, the same type of things that the Earth is composed of", Dittman said.

A team of worldwide astronomers, including those in Switzerland, have discovered a rocky exoplanet in a habitable zone of a faint red dwarf star. First, the was the report of Proxima b - a rocky, Earth-like planet whose orbit around a star only 40 trillion kilometers away allows for liquid water to form on the surface. But they're not always ripe for life.

Aside from the possibility of water, another point in LHS 1140b's favour is that its density suggests the surface may be rocky rather than gaseous.

Follow-up observations studied the star's "wobble" caused by a gravitational tug of war with the planet and confirmed the presence of a super-Earth.

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'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 global team, Drs Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, said. "This is the first time we have detected a planet where we actually know it is both temperate and rocky".

According to a statement by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, it orbits a habitable area in the constellation of Cetus, the Sea Monster. This collection of eight telescopes, with its companion facility MEarth-North, studies faint, red stars known as M dwarfs to locate orbiting planets using the transit method.

The planet, LHS 1140b, is 39 light years away.

This habitable zone is also known as the "Goldilocks" zone, taken from the children's fairy tale.

But the star that Dittmann found is a bit more intriguing since it's fairly quiet. One of these factors is the red dwarf around which the distant world orbits. Intense blasts of radiation can strip away tenuous atmospheres and harm any life beneath. That's not the case for this star.

LHS 1140b is 1.4 times the size of Earth, with a diameter of approximately 18,000 kilometres. "We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen".

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

An artistic rendering of JWST, which will be able to study the atmosphere of LHS1140b in more detail.

"There are better prospects for learning more about this planet than some of the others", says Eric Ford of Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study. Figuring out the gases in that atmosphere could paint a picture of what conditions are like on the surface below.

But if the planet can shield and hide its water source from this heat, it would be saved, Dittman said. Astronomers say it is a particularly exciting discovery because it is in a "habitable zone" and could support life. TRAPPIST-1 is just a little too dim to do this, Dittmann argues.

Outside astronomers have already put this new planet near the top of their must-see lists for new ground and space-based telescopes.

In future, observations with the Nasa Hubble Space Telescope will assess exactly how much high-energy radiation is showered upon LHS 1140b.

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"We are multiplying opportunities for looking for the place where life may have emerged elsewhere in the Universe", he said.

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