New exoplanet may be best place to look for alien life

Jeannette Daniel
April 22, 2017

Just 40 light-years away in the constellation of Cetus (aka the Sea Monster) is a super-Earth that was unearthed by ESO's HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) instrument in collaboration with an global range of telescopes. LHS 1140b's size has astronomers convinced it could have once been oozing with magma. But with a mass around seven times greater than the Earth, and hence a much higher density, it implies that the exoplanet is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.

A new, nearby exoplanet could be just the boilerplate needed to find out if life could exist in untold numbers of star systems. "This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade", said lead author Jason Dittmann in a press release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In particular, observations coming up soon with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be able to assess exactly how much high-energy radiation is showered upon LHS 1140b, so that its capacity to support life can be further constrained.

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

This super-Earth may be the best candidate yet for future observations to study and characterise its atmosphere, if one exists. "So, at least in the present day, LHS 1140b finds itself orbiting a very nice, quiet host star".

Fergus Simpson, Ph.D., of the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona, said these planets contain more water than even Earth does.

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However, these planets don't transit their parent star as seen from Earth, so their atmospheres can't be observed through the same method. Astronomers believe that the planet has retained most of its atmosphere. However, although it sits 10 times closer to its star than Earth to our sun, it only receives about half the warmth our planet enjoys, making for an uncomfortably chilly world.

The TRAPPIST-1 planets are also smaller and one has already been proven not to be rocky through a density measurement.

Still, studying LHS-1140b will mainly be for the future.

The exoplanet LHS 1140b, also called super-Earth, was discovered in a habitable zone 40 light-years away from Earth. 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.

Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 planets and LHS 1140b are exciting in their own right, and all deserve to be studied further. If so, the cranky star might have blown away the planet's atmosphere with violent eruptions and obliterated any life-forms that could have evolved. "We've been delighted to hear about the discovery of LHS by our colleagues from Harvard", he said.

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. Once it's completed, JWT will be the most powerful space-based telescope ever deployed - it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of all of these planets and more.

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