Planet Hunters Find Another 'Earthy' Planet in Our Galactic Neighborhood

This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host a small faint red star named LHS 1140.                  M. Weiss  CfA

According to Harvard's MEarth Project, which searches the universe for potentially habitable exoplanets, the rocky planet LHS 1140b orbits a star that is only 40 light years away. 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 general, one big problem with the habitable planets scientists have found around red dwarfs - and this goes for a few of the seven they've found on Trappist-1 - and Proxima b, another found previous year - is that they are so close to their star that the stellar radiation that is bombarding the planets can literally strip away any atmosphere.

Astronomers have discovered another planet that could support life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

A newly discovered exoplanet is causing excitement among astronomers as it has the potential to give us the best opportunity ever to find alien life. Several have been found in the habitable zone of their stars through NASA's Kepler and K2 missions, although they are farther away and could later be proven to be gaseous.

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"We'll be basically trying to [study] this planet with everything we have", Jason Dittmann, an astronomer at Harvard and the study's lead author, tells The Verge.

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. The planet is in orbit around a dim red dwarf called LHS 1140, which is located a mere 40 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Cetus - in astronomical terms, that's pretty close. Unlike TRAPPIST-1 and Proxima Centauri, two stars that host planets in the habitable zone but have active flares that could ruin the chances their planets have atmospheres, LHS 1140 is a relatively calm, older star. It lies 39 light years from our solar system - not exactly in the backyard, but close enough that telescopes now under construction may be able to spot oxygen molecules swarming around it. But the smaller size of the star is offset by its proximity.

This also allowed them to be sure that the planet is rocky, said HARPS team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru, because HARPS is the most precise instrument that can measure the "wobble" of the planet as the star tugs on it. Effectively, the star and the planet orbit around a mutual centre, which falls somewhere inside the star for most planets. They measured the mass of the planet to be 6.6 times that of Earth, which is consistent with a rocky bulk composition.

"This is the first one where we actually know it's rocky", Charbonneau said. When the star was young, it would have bathed the planet in a harsh ultraviolet glare that could have stripped any water from the atmosphere, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect like we see on Venus.

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There's more. The super-Earth exoplanet is orbiting a red dwarf star, much smaller than our Sun.

The next step will be to see if the planet has an atmosphere - a goal that should be hugely helped by the James Webb orbital telescope, due to be launched in October 2018 as a successor to the fabled Hubble.

But Dittman thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 planets and LHS 1140b are exciting in their own right, and all deserve to be studied further. At that distance, it receives about half as much sunlight from its star as Earth.

"I hope that we can go after both of these systems' atmospheres so that we can compare them to each other", Dittman said. 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. "We'll basically be taking a look at this planet right out of the starting gate", says Dittmann.

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