Newly discovered planet best candidate for alien life search

It seems like almost every month, astronomers declare the newest, best candidate for a home to other life out there in universe. April 2017 was no different.

A team of researchers, headed by Harvard’s Dr. Jason A. Dittmann, published a paper in the journal Nature yesterday announced another exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system, of the right size and distance from its parent star to possibly be able to host life.

LHS 1140b, as the planet is fondly known, has many similarities to the recently discovered planets of the Trappist system: it’s about the same distance away (40 light years), it orbits a small dwarf star within its habitable zone, and it is likely rocky but can have liquid water. What makes this finding exciting is that LHS 1140b is larger than any of the Trappist planets, making it easier for astronomers to study.

Using the transit method, where the slight dimming of a star as a planet passes in front of it is measured, the researchers pinpointed that there was a planet orbiting the LHC 1140 star, and a followup observation determined that the planet is 6.6 times more massive than Earth, pointing to a rocky “super-Earth” with a dense iron core.

Measuring the slight dip of light from a star due to an orbiting planet, called the transit method. Credit: NASA/Kepler.

Measuring the slight dip of light from a star due to an orbiting planet, called the transit method. Credit: NASA/Kepler.

This larger planet will be easier to investigate for future missions, like the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope, which will aim to characterize the atmosphere of LHC 1140b to see if it could support life.

"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade," Dittman said in a press release. "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science -- searching for evidence of life beyond Earth."

Watch some of Miles’s best videos about the possibility of other life out there:

 

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Banner image credit: ESO/spaceengine.org