Tuesday, 26 September, 2017

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

LHS 1140 ESO SIGNAL Space boffins will are scanning for life on the planet
Devin Neal | 20 April, 2017, 09:40

Study lead author Doctor Jason Dittmann, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said: "This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade".

First, the was the report of Proxima b - a rocky, Earth-like planet whose orbit around a star only 40 trillion kilometers away allows for liquid water to form on the surface. As LHS 1140b passes in front of its host stars, astronomers noted a dimming effect and were able to discern the planets approximate size and mass.

In general, one big problem with the habitable planets scientists have found around red dwarfs - and this goes for a few of the seven they've found on Trappist-1 - and Proxima b, another found a year ago - is that they are so close to their star that the stellar radiation that is bombarding the planets can literally strip away any atmosphere.

This zone, sometimes called the Goldilocks zone, is the "just right" area of a solar system where water doesn't freeze or evaporate - meaning it could possibly support life as we know it.

The fact that LHS 1140b is a super-Earth is a bit concerning to any hopes that - if humans ever manage to master interstellar travel - we could one day settle the planet and establish a colony. It lies in the habitable zone and can potentially hold liquid water on its surface.

"The farthest we've ever sent humans is the Moon, 1 light second away", explained Charbonneau, "and the farthest we've sent spacecraft is the edge of the Solar System - about seven light hours".

LHS 1140b, whose discovery is published in the journal Nature, orbits a so-called red dwarf star called LHS 1140 in the constellation of Cetus, the Sea Monster.

Recently, NASA announced the discovery of a star known as TRAPPIST-1 which was found to have seven planets orbiting it.

Still, Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 system, also located roughly 40 light years away, stands out as a particularly intriguing. That also means the habitable zone is much closer to the star.

LHS 1140b is 1.4 times the size of Earth, with a diameter of approximately 18,000 kilometres. "But we know that things can live at very high pressures at the bottom of the ocean, and we know of lots of bacteria that can survive all sorts of insane environments, so I think it's not infeasible to imagine some form of life being ok with living on a super-Earth".

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

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

This super-Earth, dubbed LHS 1140b, may be astronomer's best candidate yet in the search for alien life, the researchers claim. 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.

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

"We will have a first attempt to detect such an atmosphere with Hubble Space Telescope this year, and next with the James Webb Space Telescope", Bonfils told WIRED.

Artist's impression of the super-Earth exoplanet LHS 1140b. But the list of potentially habitable exoplanets is much shorter, topping out around a dozen.

"I hope that we can go after both of these systems' atmospheres so that we can compare them to each other", Dittman said.

"If you're looking for a planet which might have life, you start by looking for water", he said.

"For now, we do not have the technology to travel at a velocity close to the speed of light", Astudillo-Defru said. And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water.

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