Terrestrial exoplanet shows signs of life support

Terrestrial exoplanet shows signs of life support

by Mary Caperton Morton Monday, July 17, 2017

This planet is located in the habitable zone of liquid water surrounding its host star, a small faint red star called LHS 1140. The planet weighs about 6.6 times the mass of Earth and is shown passing in front of LHS 1140. Pictured in blue is the atmosphere , which the planet may have preserved. Credit: M. Weiss / CfA.

A recently discovered exoplanet 40 light-years from Earth appears to orbit its home star remotely suggesting it could support liquid water. The planet, named LHS 1140b and reported in a study in Nature, is located in the constellation Cetus and orbits a red dwarf star. The rocky planet is 10 times closer to its star than Earth to the sun, but the red dwarf emits only a fraction of the light made by the sun, meaning LHS 1140b lies in the middle of the habitable zone around the star.

“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement. “We could hardly hope for a better goal to accomplish one of the greatest quests in science – to seek evidence of life across the Earth.”

Spotted by the Cambridge-based MEarth exoplanet detection project, and then characterized by the European Southern Observatory’s high-precision planetary speed search engine, LHS 1140b is slightly larger than Earth, but has about seven times more mass.

The team is said to have formed about 5 billion years ago and may still retain its atmosphere, the team reported, although they noted that young red dwarf stars are known to produce large amounts of radiation that can remove the atmospheres of orbiting planets. However, researchers said the rocky nature, size, age and rotational speed of the planet make it a particularly promising candidate among the exoplanets that could support life.