Newly discovered exoplanet best place to search for life, astronomers say

Newly discovered exoplanet best place to search for life, astronomers say

In this artist tendering provided by M. Weiss Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a newly-discovered rocky exoplanet, LHS 1140b.

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

In this instance, as LHS 1140b is so big - approximately 1.4 times the size of Earth - the radiation would have been ineffective as the planet would have been covered by heaps of lava in its infancy, according to the study published in the journal Nature. Earlier this year, scientists identified seven planets orbiting a star that looked ideally-placed for hosting life, but we really don't know enough about those planets to say with any real conviction.

Over the past year, researchers have found nearby exoplanets that could potentially support life, like Proxima b and the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets.

A lot of planets that big are gaseous, but researchers say this one is rocky, made up of iron and silicates, just like Earth. According to the ESO, the exoplanet orbits 10 times closer to its host than Earth does to the Sun, so it still falls within that solar system's "habitable zone", where the planet is not too close for water to turn into gas or too far that it turns to ice.

The closest Earth-sized habitable-zone planet to us, circling Proxima Centauri, lies only 4.2 light years away, but does not transit in front of its star relative to our point of view, so we can not see the planet or its atmosphere.

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In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet's path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study.

The discovery is quite unique because LHS 1140 is a small cool star, not as active energetically as other stars which other exoplanets have been found to orbit.

"Given its large surface gravity and cool insolation, the planet may have retained its atmosphere despite the greater luminosity (compared to the present-day) of its host star in its youth", the study authors wrote. One of these factors is the red dwarf around which the distant world orbits. These planets are more massive than Earth but lighter than gas giants like Neptune or Uranus, and they're also fairly common throughout our galaxy. Crucially, it is also close enough for us to study its atmosphere and hunt for signs of life in the near-future.

'This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!' These pictures also recorded additional transits - so much so that they allowed astronomers to predict a transit that'd occur in September 2016, picked up by a telescope in Perth.

But given the size and location of LHS 1140b, the planet is an obvious candidate for further research.

LHS 1140b's dense metal core, however, might mean that it was covered by an ocean of magma during its host star's insane youthful period.

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"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo. Last year, a potentially habitable planet was found orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Indeed, we won't know much more about any of these planets' habitability until we can observe their atmospheres, which will require more powerful telescopes than today's state-of-the-art.

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.

"For now, we do not have the technology to travel at a velocity close to the speed of light", Astudillo-Defru said.

More observations using the Hubble Space Telescope are underway and the researchers are already using everything they can to study the planet and its atmosphere. "We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen".

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