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Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

20 April 2017

A newly discovered "super-Earth" 39 light years away could be the best candidate yet for a world beyond the solar system that harbours life, say scientists.

The super-Earth orbits a star dubbed LHS 1140, 40 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Cetus.

Astronomers estimate the planet's age to be at least five billion years old. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life. The star is "almost as bright as you could possibly get without making life hard", he says. A younger LHS 1140 host star would have washed the exoplanet in hellish waves of ultraviolet light that would have turned the planet into a deathscape like Venus.

A super-Earth is an extrasolar planet with a mass higher than Earth's, but substantially below the masses of the Solar System's giants, Uranus and Neptune, which contain 15 and 17 Earth masses respectively.

The latest discovery, called LHS 1140b, regularly passes in front of its star, allowing astronomers to measure its size and mass.

However, scientists believe that LHS 1140b may yield better results when it comes to aliens. These types of stars - believed to be the most abundant in our galaxy - are much smaller and cooler than our own star. The distance between LHS1140b and its host star is about 8 percent of the distance between Earth and the Sun, but the amount of high-energy radiation it receives is still relatively low.

Whether there is actually water on the planet or not depends on the composition of its atmosphere and other factors, including the presence of a magnetic field, such as the one Earth has, but the most important thing is for the planet to "fulfil the requirements to have water", which means that it must be in its star's habitable zone, Murgas said.

"But the key part is for the first time in human history, we're going to have the ability to probe the atmospheres to see molecules in the atmospheres of temperate, rocky worlds orbiting nearby stars", he said.

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The newfound planet is described in a paper appearing in the April 20thissue of the journal Nature. The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995.

The next step will be to see if the planet has an atmosphere - a goal that should be hugely helped by the James Webb orbital telescope, due to be launched in October 2018 as a successor to the fabled Hubble. Astronomers are also hoping they might spot other planets orbiting around LHS1140. This affects the planet's ability to maintain an atmosphere, water and stable compounds.

"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.

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

That means in the next several years, new telescopes can spy its atmosphere in a targeted search for signs of life.

'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 global team, Drs Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, said.

"Right now we don't have measurements of LHS 1140b's atmosphere or the atmosphere on other M dwarf rocky planets, and so a lot of this work is based upon theory and calculations", says Dittmann. Earlier this year, Nasa announced the discovery of exoplanets around a star called Trappist-1.

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life