Earth-Like Planet Found Nearby Has Life Potential: Astronomers

Earth-Like Planet Found Nearby Has Life Potential: Astronomers

An exoplanet orbiting a nearby red-dwarf star may be the "best place to look for signs of life beyond the solar system", according to the team of astronomers that has discovered the rocky world.

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.

Regarding the age of the planet, the authors of the study said that it probably formed in a manner similar to Earth and its star is probably 5 billion years old, about the same age as the Sun, although the age of M-class stars is hard to determine for a variety of factors, the Spanish researcher added.

Scientists believe that one of the major factors that governed the emergence of life on Earth was the presence of liquid water, and so telescopes target distant worlds capable of harboring this precious resource when searching for the hallmarks of life beyond our planet. Astronomers say it is a particularly exciting discovery because it is in a "habitable zone" and could support life.

Meanwhile, an asteroid nicknamed "The Rock" that could be big enough to devastate a country last night made its closest approach to Earth in 400 years.

But for a planet that's orbiting a star about 800,000 years away from us in the constellation of Cetus, how do we know such details? Otherwise, scientists can use the upcoming ESO Extremely Large Telescope to make even more detailed observations about LHS 1140b's atmosphere.

The joint exercise revealed a small, dim star circled by a small, tubby planet. In this case, the planet orbits about 10 times closer to its star than Earth does around our sun.

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

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Before the discovery of super-Earths, Earth was considered to be the largest rocky planet. Indeed, Zavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, two members of the study's team in France, described the recent era of exoplanet discovery as "remarkable".

The planet was first detected in September 2014, using a group of telescopes in southern Chile.

Further observations from the High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, led the researchers to estimate the planet's mass at 6.6 times that of Earth.

The planet's large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. "We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman. "Once the star had calmed down a bit, the magma would cool and start to release its water and other gases, forming the planet's atmosphere".

"There has been lots of debate about whether these planets can maintain a magnetic field (and if that's important for habitability) and if M-dwarf planets lose their atmospheres in their host star's active youth", principal investigator Jason Dittman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Astronomy.

The scientists aren't wasting any time following up with observations: the next transit (where the planet crosses in front of the star) will occur on October 26 and they've booked several telescopes in Chile to search for signatures of oxygen molecules in the planet's atmosphere.

"This is the first one where we actually know it's rocky", Charbonneau said.

Make that super-sized, because it belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

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