What Is LHS 1140b? This Newly-Discovered Planet Could Hold Extraterrestrial Life

22 April, 2017, 01:33 | Author: Lorraine Moran
  • Artist’s rendition of exoplanet LHS 1140b

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". It's 40 percent wider than Earth but it has 6.6 times Earth's mass, giving it a gravitational pull three times stronger, Charbonneau said.

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.

Follow-up observations by HARPS told astronomers they were looking at a super-Earth, which they estimate to be at least 5 billion years old and slightly larger but significantly more massive than our planet. Releasing the results of their preliminary research of LHS 1140b in this week's Nature, Dittmann is hopeful at the prospect of finding life on this distant planet, a feat which has yet to be reached by the scientific community.

This super-Earth may be the best candidate yet for future observations to study and characterise its atmosphere, if one exists.

The LHS 1140b offers a great opportunity to test that proposition. Outside of Earth, however, liquid water is far rarer than you may realize, which is what makes LHS 1140b's atmosphere so notable.

This also makes studying signals from the planets easier than around more active M-dwarfs. The steam is thought to have escaped into the atmosphere, where it condensed and fell to the planet as rain. However, although it sits 10 times closer to its star than Earth to our sun, it only receives about half the warmth our planet enjoys, making for an uncomfortably chilly world. If initial on-Earth investigations indicate there are signs of life on the planet, the next step would naturally be to dispatch a probe.

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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.

This rookie, known as LHS 1140b, hails from the constellation Cetus (the sea monster). If so, the cranky star might have blown away the planet's atmosphere with violent eruptions and obliterated any life-forms that could have evolved. At the moment, our hopes rest on the telescopes now under construction in Chile which are due to be completed soon, whilst NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which should be operational in 2018, is also expected to provide some support.

"It is astonishing to live in a time when discovery of potentially habitable worlds is not only common place but proliferating", said MIT astronomer Sara Seager, who wasn't part of the study.

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

Header Image: An illustration shows the newly discovered planet LHS 1140b crossing in front of its star. Its distance also means temperatures would be comfortable for life as we know it, unlike the otherwise similar, but very roasted, GJ 1132b.

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