Published: Thu, April 20, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

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. The team of astronomers responsible for this discovery believes LHS 1140b entered the habitable zone around 40 million years after the star formed. By measuring how much light this planet blocks, the team determined that it is about 11,000 miles in diameter, or about 40 percent larger than Earth.

But this one, dubbed LHS 1140b, is extra-special because it has turned up in the dwarf star's habitable zone, that area in space where liquid water can exist on the surface. LHS 1140b is circling a red dwarf star, which emits less heat and light than the Sun.

Using just a 12-inch telescope - a high-end one you can purchase at astronomy stores or online - Thiam-Guan Tan from Perth, Australia, managed to provide the final confirmation that the researchers had correctly calculated the orbital period of the planet. These types of stars - believed to be the most abundant in our galaxy - are much smaller and cooler than our own star.

The latest discovery is described Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The astronomers estimate the age of the planet to be at least five billion years and that it is 1.4 times larger and seven times more dense than Earth.

The planet was discovered by observing the tiny reduction in the light from the star when the planet passed in front of it. Mr Tan said the minute dip in light was like "observing a candle burning in Albany from Perth".

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the previous year we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too. The amount of sunlight this super-Earth receives is about half as much as Earth. But Proxima b's position means astronomers can't get a good, hard look at the planet's atmosphere, if it has one. TRAPPIST-1 is just a little too dim to do this, Dittmann argues.

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Its density is one of the main reasons for considering the planet a possible location for extraterrestrial life.

There's been compelling evidence lately that some of these planets around red dwarfs could, in fact, retain an atmosphere.That's the case of GJ 1132b, a hellish world with Venus-like temperatures around an M-dwarf star that, despite all odds, seems to hold on to an atmosphere.

Still, he said he's confident that astronomers will find a habitable planet soon, be it LHS 1140b or another. The scientists used the MEarth-South telescope array to monitor the brightness of the star LHS 1140, starting in 2014.

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

All seven of Trappist-1's planets are considered potential candidates for having water in some form, but the chances are highest for three located in the Goldilocks zone.

The last six months have never been more exciting for exoplanet hunting.

In the coming decades, LHS 1140b is sure to be investigated much more intensively, an ongoing project for the powerful next-generation telescopes, including the James Webb instrument and the E-ELT device, which will be installed in Chile and - within a few years - will be able to study the system and try to detect its atmosphere, along with other characteristics.

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