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Why far-off waterworlds are best bet for alien life

Why far-off waterworlds are best bet for alien life”

All of this adds up to huge hopes for LHS 1140b.

The giant mass of the new planet - around seven times larger than the Earth - and the subsequent much higher density led researchers to believe LHS 1140b is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.

Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have discovered a new exoplanet which is their best bet in the search for alien life. According to the study published on Nature, it is situated just 40 light-years away from Earth and is said to be in the "Goldilocks region".

The latest discovery, called LHS 1140b, regularly passes in front of its star, allowing astronomers to measure its size and mass.

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.

Not too long ago, planets orbiting the red dwarfs did not interest scientists because they were mostly tidally locked. Thus, gravity on LHS 1140b would be three times greater than Earth's.

In the new work, Simpson finds that the Earth's finely balanced oceans may be a effect of the anthropic principle - more often used in a cosmological context - which accounts for how our observations of the Universe are influenced by the requirement for the formation of sentient life.

LHS 1140b's host star spins slower and emits less radiation, unlike the TRAPPIST-1 star. "This debate definitely isn't settled, and there are compelling reasons why these planets might lose their atmospheres and there are also ways that you can imagine it can hold onto its atmosphere". 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. According to the current scientific understanding, the best way to find extraterrestrial life is to look for water.

In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet's path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study.

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

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.

An artist's conception shows Kepler-22b, an exoplanet that orbits a Sun-like star within a habitable zone.

Dittmann thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 planets and LHS 1140b are exciting in their own right, and all deserve to be studied further. The research team is optimistic that it has retained most of its atmosphere despite bathing in deadly radiation from the red dwarf for billions of years. Its distance also means temperatures would be comfortable for life as we know it, unlike the otherwise similar, but very roasted, GJ 1132b.

"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.

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



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