Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

LHS 1140 artist impression

LHS 1140 artist impression

Zach Berta-Thompson, an assistant professor in CU Boulder's Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, is a co-author of the new research. But after the discovery of LHS 1140b, astronomers were clouded out from locations where it should be visible.

In February NASA announced the discovery of TRAPPIST-1, a system of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a Jupiter-sized dwarf star 235 trillion miles away from Earth. But some scientists worry that the system's young red dwarf star is so active that high-energy radiation has sterilized any environment where life might otherwise exist. Not a lot of super-Earths have been found to sit in the habitable zone, so this rare find raises the possibility that there could be a lot more planets like this one.

'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.

The study's main author, Jason Dittmann, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said that this is the "most interesting" exoplanet that he's seen in the last decade.

It's about 40 percent bigger than our home planet, hence the moniker super-Earth, and it's much more dense, weighing about 6.6 times as much as Earth, giving it three times the gravitational pull.

The TRAPPIST-1 planets are also smaller and one has already been proven not to be rocky through a density measurement. "We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like". They were also able to help him discover its orbit, which is 25 days, as well as the planet's mass and density.

But an atmosphere around a habitable M-dwarf planet has never been spotted. Large, next-generation telescopes will be needed to tease out these subtle signals.

The star LHS 1140 is also a red dwarf, but it's old enough to have settled down. Since the star is so dim and cool, its habitable zone (the distance at which a planet might be warm enough to hold liquid water) is very close.

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Furthermore, they established that LHS 1140b receives an insolation of 0.46 times that of Earth.

For that duration, it would be easy for the planet to lose all of its potential water for good.

Next up, scientists will continue observing the newest super-Earth using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, in hopes of figuring out what kind of atmosphere the planet has, or if it even has one at all. It is possible that the size of the planet allowed a magma ocean to exist on its surface for millions of years.

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

Since the concept was first presented in 1953, many stars have been shown to have a Goldilocks area, and some of them have one or several planets in this zone. And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

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.

The MEarth-South telescope array, located at Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile, searches for planets by monitoring the brightness of nearby, small stars.

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