Super-Earth orbiting nearby star boosts search for alien life

Judith QuinnApr 22, 2017

There are many other exoplanets that are in the habitable zone of their parent stars, but the newly discovered super-Earth is our best bet because of the type of star it orbits and its orientation to Earth.

Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Observatory of the Sciences of the Universe in Grenoble, France, said LHS 1140b now "joins Trappist-1 at the head of the rankings".

The planet is designated as a "super-Earth" because it is 40% larger than our home planet - 11,000 miles in diameter, 6.6 times the mass of Earth and a much higher density.

Their confidence is founded in the unprecedented detail gleaned from the planet, named LHS 1140b, thriving in unusual circumstances about 40 light years away.

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.

Though it's much closer to its sun than Earth is to ours, LHS 1140 is a lot cooler than our life-giving buddy.

In the new work, Simpson finds that the Earth's finely balanced oceans may be a outcome 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. The host star LHS 1140 is only about one-fifth the size of our sun.

In the future, they want to use HARPS to continue observing the star and see if there are more planets around it.

Proxima b, which was unveiled today, is a new Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri - the closest neighbouring star to the Sun. The new planet is rocky - much like our Earth, albeit much larger - and is situated in the liquid water zone of the star. According to the current scientific understanding, the best way to find extraterrestrial life is to look for water. Because it transits its star so frequently, there is hope scientists will be able to measure LHS 1140b's atmosphere.

But LHS 1140b is exceptional because of its location. At the moment, our hopes rest on the telescopes now under construction in Chile which are due to be completed soon, whilst NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which should be operational in 2018, is also expected to provide some support.

"I really want to emphasise that both our system and TRAPPIST-1 are exciting and both worthy of intense future study", he told Gizmodo.

"Realistically, we're going to be getting our first tastes of these atmospheres sometime in the next decade", Dittmann says.

"The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable - LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars", explains team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland.

"We are very excited by this discovery".

And last week, scientists from Europe and the United Kingdom announced that they had detected an atmosphere around a nearby exoplanet called GJ 1132b-the smallest such world to offer up any clues about its gassy constituents.

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.

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