Newly-Discovered Exoplanet Offers Best Chance of Finding Alien Life

Posted April 22, 2017

What is LHS 1140b, exactly?

It's designated as a super-Earth because the planet is 40% larger than our home planet - 11,000 miles in diameter, 6.6 times the mass of Earth and a much higher density. At the risk of screwing with our fragile hearts even more, it's worth mentioning that a recently discovered exoplanet 39 light-years from Earth might actually give the current favourites - Proxima b and the TRAPPIST-1 system - a run for their money.

"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", said principal investigator Jason Dittman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Earth itself is about 70 percent water on its surface, but the alien planets are likely "dominated by oceans spanning over 90 percent of their surface area", a study in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society speculated. The exoplanet was discovered using the MEarth-South survey in Chile and the European Southern Observatory (ESO)'s HARPS instrument. It's located just 40 light years away.

In April, astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy detected atmosphere around Gliese 1132b, the first time an atmosphere was detected around a low-mass super-Earth.

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According to a paper in Nature describing the findings, the planet seems temperate now, but millions of years ago, the star blasted LHS 1140b with ultraviolet rays.

In the new work, Simpson finds that the Earth's finely balanced oceans may be a effect of the anthropic principle - more often used in a cosmological context - which accounts for how our observations of the Universe are influenced by the requirement for the formation of sentient life.

In December 2011 Kepler 22b was confirmed as the first potentially habitable planet orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone of a Sun-like star.

"Even small planets. are not necessarily "terrestrial" worlds like the Earth", Weiss says. Because LHS 1140 is nearby, telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future.

But LHS 1140b is exceptional because of its location.

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LHS 1140b's star is comparatively larger than TRAPPIST-1 and brighter, so it could be an object of study for future ground-based telescopes in addition to the James Webb Space Telescope. It may be the best place to look for signs of life outside the Solar System.

Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 planets and LHS 1140b are exciting in their own right, and all deserve to be studied further. We also expect - and hope to check with future data - that the star is very quiet at high energies as well.

As a result, astronomers have been able to get close, frequent looks at the all-important light signature - a big plus in the drive to figure out a planet's size, mass and possible atmosphere.

"I hope that we can go after both of these systems' atmospheres so that we can compare them to each other", Dittmann said. The research team is optimistic that it has retained most of its atmosphere despite bathing in deadly radiation from the red dwarf for billions of years.

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