"Super-Earth" offers chance for life outside solar system

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"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade", Dittmann said in a statement.

This artist's impression video shows an imaginary trip to the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may.

Many astronomers consider planets orbiting red dwarf stars to be excellent candidates for extraterrestrial life - more so than planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun - in part because red dwarfs are by far the most numerous type around.

This zone, sometimes called the Goldilocks zone, is the "just right" area of a solar system where water doesn't freeze or evaporate - meaning it could possibly support life as we know it.

The new planet, known as LHS 1140b, receives enough starlight to allow for liquid water, a prerequisite for life on Earth.

This is the distance from a star where the temperature is not too hot, nor too cold, but just right.

The newly found exoplanet orbits around a red dwarf star only 40 light-years away from Earth, just a hair farther away than the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau said what makes this planet so exciting is that it is rocky and regularly passes in front of its star.

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The scientists aren't wasting any time following up with observations: the next transit (where the planet crosses in front of the star) will occur on October 26 and they've booked several telescopes in Chile to search for signatures of oxygen molecules in the planet's atmosphere.

The "super-Earth", which is around 1.4 times the size of Earth but seven times its mass, is rocky, temperate and orbits a quiet star in our galactic neighbourhood.

The planet LHS 1140 b, described in the journal Nature, provides a tempting target for astronomers looking to probe an exoplanet's thin but essential shell of air, which could offer clues about whether such a world could host life. It is located in the constellation Cetus, 39 light years or 230 trillion miles away. But the smaller size of the star is offset by its proximity.

In contrast with the TRAPPIST-1 star, LHS 1140 spins slowly and does not emit much high-energy radiation, which also may help the likelihood of life on its planet. "LHS 1140 is brighter at optical wavelengths because it's slightly bigger than the TRAPPIST-1 star. LHS is one of these planets around small nearby red dwarfs, the ones we need to find as soon (and as many) as possible to study them with the JWST".

The planet initially discovered by the MEarth Project, which searches for exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars. This planet, designated LHS 1140 b, orbits its star every 25 days. Further observations were then made by the European Southern Observatory's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), from which, among other things, astronomers were able to calculate LHS 1140b's size, density and orbital period, as well as take an informed stab at its age.

LHS 1140b orbits in the HZ of its parent star, which is an important tick in the "can-host-liquid-water" column, but there are a myriad of other factors that could prevent the world from maintaining the vital asset. NASA, its maker, has slated its launch for 2018. But the list of potentially habitable exoplanets is much shorter, topping out around a dozen.

"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo. But after the discovery of LHS 1140b, astronomers were clouded out from locations where it should be visible. As the planet heated up, a steaming ocean of lava conceivably provided water vapor to replenish the atmosphere.

He is excited about eventually answering the question of whether or not we're alone in the unvierse.