Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life


"What really sets this planet apart from others that have been discovered is that we know the mass and the radius of the planet", said Jason Dittmann, a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host star, a small, faint red star named LHS 1140. But after the discovery of LHS 1140b, astronomers were clouded out from locations where it should be visible. As the planet heated up, a steaming ocean of lava conceivably provided water vapor to replenish the atmosphere.

A temperate, rocky "super-Earth" planet has been discovered transiting in front of a small star located about 39 light years away from Earth.

When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them. The planet itself is 1.4 times larger and 6.6 times more massive than Earth, and the principal investigators of the study published today in Nature believe it to be rocky.

If a planet is too close to its star, it will experience a runaway greenhouse gas effect, like Venus. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

Scientists believe that one of the major factors that governed the emergence of life on Earth was the presence of liquid water, and so telescopes target distant worlds capable of harboring this precious resource when searching for the hallmarks of life beyond our planet.

'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.

Further into the future-when new telescopes like ESO's Extremely Large Telescope are operating-it is likely that we will be able to make detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, and LHS 1140b is an exceptional candidate for such studies. Scientists could then search for and identify specific gases in this atmosphere, via a technique called transmission spectroscopy (see box).

Given all these possibilities, Dittmann and his team are eager to keep studying this planet with more ground-based telescopes, as well as the space-based Hubble telescope. A person weighing 167 pounds would feel like 500 pounds.

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A lot of planets that big are gaseous, but researchers say this one is rocky, made up of iron and silicates, just like Earth. "Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time".

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? So are a group of seven mostly Earth-sized planets in or near the habitable zone found circling a star called Trappist-1 earlier this year, but it in a different direction.

The planet initially discovered by the MEarth Project, which searches for exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars.

The latest discoveries have their founders at odds over which of the planets are the most promising.

The temperature from the star needs to be "just right" so that liquid water can exist on the surface.

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Yale astronomer Greg Laughlin, who wasn't part of any of the teams, praised all the new findings but said the Trappist planets seem too light and the new one too dense for his taste: "I wouldn't book a trip to any of these planets".

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