'Super-Earth' orbiting nearby star boosts search for extra-solar life

Just 40 light-years away in the constellation of Cetus (aka the Sea Monster) is a super-Earth that was unearthed by ESO's HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) instrument in collaboration with an worldwide range of telescopes. 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.

A newly discovered planet is the most promising yet in the search for extraterrestrial life, according to the Harvard astronomers who found it.

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

Dittmann and his team of researchers followed up on the observation using the European Southern Observatory (ESO) HARPS instrument, which allowed them to confirm the planet's orbital period, mass and density. It also makes the planet not too hot, not too cold and not too far away either at only 40 light years away. During that time, the habitable zone of the star would be much further out, which means that LHS 1140b was exceptionally heated.

"The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable - LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars", team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland, explained. Since they are cooler and dimmer, astronomers can study the planets orbiting them in great detail.

Sometimes, telescopes can capture the sliver of sunlight passing through the planet's atmosphere, revealing information about the atmospheric chemical composition.

The model predicts that most habitable planets are dominated by oceans spanning over 90 per cent of their surface area.This conclusion is reached because the Earth itself is very close to being a so-called "waterworld" - a world where all land is immersed under a single ocean.

It is also being said the larger planets are more prone to flooding compared to the smaller ones.

But LHS 1140b is exceptional because of its location. He mentioned that more sources of information could be gathered with the help of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be launched in 2018 and commissioned in 2022, respectively. If initial on-Earth investigations indicate there are signs of life on the planet, the next step would naturally be to dispatch a probe. Because it transits its star so frequently, there is hope scientists will be able to measure LHS 1140b's atmosphere.

"I really want to emphasise that both our system and TRAPPIST-1 are exciting and both worthy of intense future study", he told Gizmodo.

And last week, scientists from Europe and the United Kingdom announced that they had detected an atmosphere around a nearby exoplanet called GJ 1132b-the smallest such world to offer up any clues about its gassy constituents. "We've been delighted to hear about the discovery of LHS by our colleagues from Harvard", he said. 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.

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

  • Aubrey Nash