Newly discovered exoplanet LHS 1140b could host alien life

Posted April 20, 2017

An worldwide team of scientists has announced the discovery of a new "super-Earth" exoplanet (a planet with more mass than Earth, but not quite as big as our gas giants) that could represent our best chance of finding life outside of our solar system.

The planet is LHS 1140b - a "super-Earth" only about 1.4 times the size of our planet, but with about 6.6 times its mass - that circles its star in what astronomers call the habitable zone, a region around a star where water is able to exist on a planet's surface.

Astronomers are labelling it a "super Earth". Dittman's team estimates its age at around five billion years, which means it long ago survived a major drawback associated with its host sun - and, thanks to its hefty mass, may have done so rather well.

This new big planet is rocky, like Earth. Despite this lack of stellar energy, LHS 1140b is in the habitable zone of its star, which means that it could support life.

Because red dwarfs are dimmer and cooler than Sun-type stars, however, their planetary habitable zone is much closer in.

Meanwhile, an asteroid nicknamed "The Rock" that could be big enough to devastate a country last night made its closest approach to Earth in 400 years. Its mass, however, is nearly seven times that of our own planet, leading to the assumption that it likely comprises rock encasing a solid iron core.

But for a planet that's orbiting a star about 800,000 years away from us in the constellation of Cetus, how do we know such details?

However, scientists believe that LHS 1140b may yield better results when it comes to aliens.

This also allowed them to be sure that the planet is rocky, said HARPS team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru, because HARPS is the most precise instrument that can measure the "wobble" of the planet as the star tugs on it.

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When red-dwarf stars are young they are known to emit radiation that would damage the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, was made using the MEarth-South telescope in Cerro Tololo, Chile, which noticed significant dips in light as the planet passed in front of its star. That's because they're the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from. While this is close in astronomical terms, what makes it so special is we do not need to go there to look for life.

Astronomers will now use the Hubble Space Telescope to try to work out how much life-destroying radiation is currently being showered upon LHS 1140b.

"But for Proxima Centauri b, we only know the minimum mass and for the Trappist-1 planets, we know their size and their mass is not very well known - except for one, which we know isn't rocky", fellow author Xafier Bonfils from the University of Grenoble told WIRED.

Scientists describe the exoplanet as the "best place to look for signs of life beyond the solar system", according to a press release on Wednesday.

However, it is possible that LHS 1140b could have escaped this fate, thanks to its size.

Dr Xavier Delfosse said: "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". Meaning, one side of the planet always faces the star while the other faces away.

Make that super-sized, because it 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 first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995, but thanks to new techniques and especially NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope, the number of them has exploded in recent years.