Most habitable planets may lack dry land

Apr 22, 2017, 01:32
Most habitable planets may lack dry land

That candidate is an exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth-what the worldwide team of astronomers who discovered it have deemed a "super-Earth".

All of this adds up to huge hopes for LHS 1140b. But with a mass around seven times greater than the Earth, and hence a much higher density, it implies that the exoplanet is probably made of rock with a dense iron core. While there are many candidates, an Earth-like planet orbiting a small, cool star could be the best candidate by far. Now, we know of thousands of such planets - and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.

The super-Earth and its parent star are located in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, 39 light years from the Sun, thus - relatively speaking - putting it in our galactic "neighbourhood", according to Felipe Murgas, the coauthor of the study and a researcher with Spain's Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics.

Scientists consider the super-Earth's odd behavior interesting. Instead of torching LHS 1140b, the star - known simply as LHS 1140 - provides only half the energy that Earth receives.

A report from the Royal Astronomical Society explains that if a planet were to have substantial land and water coverage, "a delicate balance must be struck between the volume of water it retains over time, and how much space it has to store it in its oceanic basins".

"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo. Classified as an M dwarf star, this particular star is one-fifth the size of the sun.

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In the future, they want to use HARPS to continue observing the star and see if there are more planets around it. There are already concerns about the habitability of Proxima b, which, like LHS 1140b, orbits a red dwarf. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

Scientist believe that 1140b could be close enough that newer telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific gasses, like oxygen, in the future. But LHS 1140b's large mass could make the study of its potential atmosphere tricky.

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.

Research team member Dr Nicola Astudillo-Defru, of Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, said: "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". "We've been delighted to hear about the discovery of LHS by our colleagues from Harvard", he said. "Our understanding of the development of life may be far from complete, but it is not so dire that we must adhere to the conventional approximation that all habitable planets have an equal chance of hosting intelligent life", Simpson said.

"Realistically, we're going to be getting our first tastes of these atmospheres sometime in the next decade", Dittmann says.

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