Tuesday, 22 August, 2017

Nearby earth-like planet may be just right for life

Planet Hunters Find Another 'Earthy' Planet in Our Galactic Neighborhood Potentially habitable 'super-Earth' is prime target for atmospheric study
Heather Davidson | 20 April, 2017, 09:27

A joint group of scientists from the European Southern Observatory announced on Wednesday that the group has found a planet 40 light years away from Earth that could potentially support life.

The newfound planet is described in a paper appearing in the April 20thissue of the journal Nature. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will take a look soon to see how much high-energy radiation is pouring onto the exoplanet. It's not too hot and not too cold, it's just right - hence the term Goldilocks zone. And it may even have an atmosphere. Last year, a potentially habitable planet was found orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. "What really sets this planet apart from others that have been discovered is that we know the mass and the radius of the planet", said Jason Dittmann, a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Super-Earths exist in between.

"The farthest we've ever sent humans is the Moon, 1 light second away", explained Charbonneau, "and the farthest we've sent spacecraft is the edge of the Solar System - about seven light hours".

A lot of planets that big are gaseous, but researchers say this one is rocky, made up of iron and silicates, just like Earth.

"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade". It all started with the observation of a dip in the light of the star. But the smaller size of the star is offset by its proximity. That is proportional to the planet's mass. That's because they're the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from.

The exoplanet therefore lies in the middle of the habitable zone of the star, meaning it has numerous conditions needed to grow alien life.

For that duration, it would be easy for the planet to lose all of its potential water for good. For instance, astronomers may be able to measure oxygen molecules, which are key for life on our planet, Dittmann says. That's where lava comes in.

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the previous year we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too.

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There's been compelling evidence lately that some of these planets around red dwarfs could, in fact, retain an atmosphere.That's the case of GJ 1132b, a hellish world with Venus-like temperatures around an M-dwarf star that, despite all odds, seems to hold on to an atmosphere.

The boundaries of the habitable zone are critical. Think of it like holding an object too close to an open flame.

Red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun and, although LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it only receives about half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth.

LHS 1140 b or TRAPPIST-1?

The star LHS 1140 is also a red dwarf, but it's old enough to have settled down. This affects the planet's ability to maintain an atmosphere, water and stable compounds.

However, since the planet is larger than Earth, it might have possessed a magma ocean on its surface for millions of years. The telescopes, part of the MEarth-South telescope array, saw the planet as it passed in front of its host star.

The James Webb Space Telescope is capable of observing large exoplanets and detecting starlight filtered through their atmosphere, which will enable scientists to determine the atmospheric composition and analyze them for gases that can create a biological ecosystem. But the hope is that by studying the atmosphere of all these planets in the habitable zone, we might find some of the biological signatures of living things.

The closest Earth-sized habitable-zone planet to us, circling Proxima Centauri, lies only 4.2 light years away, but does not transit in front of its star relative to our point of view, so we can not see the planet or its atmosphere.

If signs of life are found in the planet's atmosphere, it might be possible to send a probe to explore further. Both are ticks in the theoretical boxes for habitable worlds.

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