Astronomers discover 'Super-Earth' planet that could support life

Mandy Carr
April 20, 2017

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".

This artist's impression video shows an imaginary trip to the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may. Its mass, however, is nearly seven times that of our own planet, leading to the assumption that it likely comprises rock encasing a solid iron core.

In our Solar System, such a planet would be so scorched that any atmosphere and surface water would be stripped away.

Over the previous year, researchers have found nearby exoplanets that could potentially support life, like Proxima b and the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets. "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science - searching for evidence of life beyond Earth". But because LHS 1140 b is so much dimmer than our sun, the planet is thought to be in a habitable zone where water can exist in liquid form. Meaning, one side of the planet always faces the star while the other faces away.

"This is the first one where we actually know it's rocky", said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study. The telescopes stare at these stars for a long time, looking for tiny dips in their brightness - a sign that an orbiting planet has just moved between the star and us. It is over six-times as massive as Earth and about 1.5-times larger - fitting the description of a so-called "super Earth": It's bigger and more massive than Earth but smaller and less massive than the next biggest planet, Neptune.

The planet, LHS 1140b, was initially found using the MEarth facility run by Harvard University astronomers, which had previously helped discover the potentially-habitable GJ 1132 b exoplanet as well. The host star is also relatively close to Earth, which means its light is just bright enough to be used as a tool to peer into the planet's atmosphere. Red dwarf stars usually have a few planets in their orbit, like TRAPPIST-1.

The planet's orbit is 10 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, according to early measurements.

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Over the past year, other astronomers have detected potentially habitable exoplanets that are closer, including Proxima Centauri b and the TRAPPIST-1 worlds. 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.

Water is one of the main ingredients and the team behind the research say that chemical reactions on the planet could have given in an abundance of water. But if LHS 1140b was able to withstand the brunt of its star's radiation, it's possible signs of life are lurking there. NASA, its maker, has slated its launch for 2018.

Before the discovery of super-Earths, Earth was considered to be the largest rocky planet.

This comes after another Earth-sized planet recently discovered orbiting a second red dwarf 39 light years away could be a steamy "water world", scientists believe. "Because LHS 1140 is nearby, telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future".

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the a year ago we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too.

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann acknowledged. "We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen". "But hopefully someday very soon we can start confronting those theories with real data!"

Other reports by Guamnewswatch

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