Exoplanet Around Cool Star May Harbor Alien Life

Artist’s rendition of exoplanet LHS 1140b

Scientists studying a newly-discovered super-Earth circling a star some 40 light years away believe they just may have found an exoplanet that might be able to sustain alien life.

Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Observatory of the Sciences of the Universe in Grenoble, France, said LHS 1140b now "joins Trappist-1 at the head of the rankings".

Earlier, astronomers have discovered a number of nearby exoplanets - or planets outside our solar system - that could harbour life like Proxima b and the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets.

Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have discovered a new exoplanet which is their best bet in the search for alien life.

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.

"Right now, we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", said Dittmann.

Although 40 light years is not that distant in galactic terms (relatively speaking), it is still far enough away to make it very hard to gauge the exoplanet's habitability.

Scientists consider the super-Earth's odd behavior interesting. Thus, gravity on LHS 1140b would be three times greater than Earth's.

At a more down to Earth level, the unusual ratio of land and water found on our planet could be another example of fine tuning necessary for intelligence.

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We still do not understand why Earth is so well-balanced. "LHS 1140 is brighter at optical wavelengths because it's slightly bigger than the TRAPPIST-1 star". Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained.

In December 2011 Kepler 22b was confirmed as the first potentially habitable planet orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone of a Sun-like star.

What qualifies as the habitable zone for LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, but only half as much light shines on it because its star is so much smaller and cooler. It may be the best place to look for signs of life outside the Solar System.

Still, studying LHS-1140b will mainly be for the future.

But he's really excited about looking for gases like methane, ozone, and carbon dioxide using bigger, shinier tools that could become available in the next decades: the James Webb Space Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope, among others.

"I hope that we can go after both of these systems' atmospheres so that we can compare them to each other", Dittmann said. But there's a problem with planets around M-dwarfs, also known as red dwarfs: Tiny red dwarfs start out as furious flare machines, which could violently strip away primordial atmospheres around recently formed planets.

"What I truly find exciting is that we have a potentially habitable, rocky planet orbiting a nearby star that is now very calm and stable and doesn't flare", Dittmann said.

Outside astronomers have already put this new planet near the top of their must-see lists for new ground and space-based telescopes.

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