Nearby earth-like planet may be just right for life

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"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade", said Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

The planet is LHS 1140b - a "super-Earth" only about 1.4 times the size of our planet, but with about 6.6 times its mass - that circles its star in what astronomers call the habitable zone, a region around a star where water is able to exist on a planet's surface.

When red-dwarf stars are young they are known to emit radiation that would damage the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

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.

Scientists have been on the hunt for a kind of "Goldilocks" planet: a body that's small enough to be rocky and not gaseous, far (but not too far) enough from its star to hold liquid water, and bearing an atmosphere that could protect any possible life present. It's not so far away, either.

"This planet will be an excellent target for the James Webb Space Telescope when it launches in 2018, and I'm especially excited about studying it with the ground-based Giant Magellan Telescope, which is under construction", said co-author David Charbonneau of the CfA. 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.

Dittmann is the lead author of a paper published by the journal Nature describing the exoplanet, known as LHS 1140 b.




Currently, the MEarth project is studying small stars that are less than a third the size of the Sun.

An analysis of the resulting data determined that the planet orbits the star every 25 days, at a distance well within Mercury's orbit around our own sun (roughly 7.4 million miles). The TRAPPIST-1 star and other similar red dwarfs are usually pretty active, meaning they send out high intensity solar flares quite frequently.

Then there are the seven Earth-sized planets at a relatively close star called TRAPPIST-1.

Other planets that seem Earth-like in some ways turn out to be hellish worlds hostile to life, and 1140b may turn out to be one too. 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. Two of the European members of the team, Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils say that it's the best candidate so far. The planet also lies about 39 light-years away, circling a red dwarf star in the constellation Cetus. Last year, a potentially habitable planet was found orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

An artist's impression of the newly-discovered rocky exoplanet, LHS 1140b.

Red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun and, although LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it only receives about half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth.

"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo. Once it's completed, JWT will be the most powerful space-based telescope ever deployed - it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of all of these planets and more. In their early lives, their energy outputs vary wildly, with modelling indicating massive solar storms capable of generating runaway greenhouse effects on nearby planets, burning off atmospheres and boiling away any liquid water. "We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen". "We'll basically be taking a look at this planet right out of the starting gate", says Dittmann.

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