'Super-Earth' may be best bet for life

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When it comes to the search for planets outside our Solar System, also called exoplanets, astronomers have been particularly interested in super-Earths like LHS 1140b.

The exoplanet, which has been (rather unimaginatively) named LHS 1140b, orbits right in the middle of the red dwarf's habitable zone (HZ) - the region of space around a star in which a planet could potentially sustain liquid water on its surface.

The "super-Earth", which is around 1.4 times the size of Earth but seven times its mass, is rocky, temperate and orbits a quiet star in our galactic neighbourhood. Dittman's team estimates its age at around five billion years, which means it long ago survived a major drawback associated with its host sun - and, thanks to its hefty mass, may have done so rather well. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

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.

The star LHS 1140 is also a red dwarf, but it's old enough to have settled down.

So it's possible there's more super-Earths near LHS1140b, scientists just haven't seen them yet.

In a paper detailing the discovery, the researchers also say they believe the planet has an atmosphere, adding that both star LHS 1140 and planet LHS 1140b are so close to Earth that "telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future". But what exactly do we know about LHS 1140b that suggests it has an atmosphere?


Follow-up observations studied the star's "wobble" caused by a gravitational tug of war with the planet and confirmed the presence of a super-Earth. It orbits a small M-dwarf star every 24 days. 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.

The temperature from the star needs to be "just right" so that liquid water can exist on the surface. That's because they're the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from. This planet's large size indicates that a magma ocean may have existed on its surface for eons, feeding steam into the atmosphere and replenishing the planet with water until well within the time the star had cooled to its current, steady glow.

"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. Accordingly, the HZ of the red dwarf occupies a range of space roughly ten times closer to its central ball of fire than the HZ in our own solar system.

Researchers at Harvard-Smithsonian say that LHS 1140b stands out because of its dimensions.

Hearing the phrase "habitable exoplanet" inevitably conjures up visions of another planet like Earth, teeming with vast oceans, swaths of green lands, and a crisp, gaseous veneer that keeps the whole thing together.

Since the star it orbits is quite small and relatively close to us, it may be possible for current telescopes and those now under construction to determine if the planet has an atmosphere.

Since the concept was first presented in 1953, many stars have been shown to have a Goldilocks area, and some of them have one or several planets in this zone.

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