A newly discovered alien planet orbiting a nearby small star could be one of the best places to look for life beyond our solar system.
An international team of astronomers discovered a “super-Earth” planet dubbed LHS1140b, orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light-years away in the constellation of Cetus.
The potentially rocky planet is 1.4 times the size and seven times the mass of Earth, and sits within the star’s habitable zone, the scientists reported in the journal Nature.
Some of the things essential for life to exist on a planet include liquid surface water and an atmosphere.
Lead author and astronomer Jason Dittmann said the discovery ticked a lot of boxes.
“It orbits a quiet star, and orbits at a distance that might mean that there’s liquid water on the planet,” Dr Dittmann said.
It is also believed this super-Earth has retained most of its atmosphere.
Additionally because of the planet’s close proximity to Earth astronomers will be able to find out more about it, quicker.
“This star is only 40 light-years away, which is incredibly close,” Dr Dittmann said.
“If we shrank the entire galaxy to the size of the United States, the distance between the Earth and this planet would be smaller than Central Park. So this planet is really Earth’s next-door neighbour.”
Dr Dittmann said it was close enough that scientists could feasibly answer these questions in the near future.
“So we can conceivably look at its atmosphere over the next decade and figure out whether the planet has an atmosphere that looks like the Earth’s. So I’m very excited to begin this process,” he said.
The planet was initially detected in a survey by MEarth-south telescope array based in Chile, which picked up tell-tale dips in light as the planet passed in front of its star.
The astronomers then used the European Southern Observatory to pin down more details about the planet such its mass, density and how long it takes to orbit its sun.
But Dr Dittmann said there was still a lot to do
“Discovering the planet is just the beginning,” he said.
“We have been approved to use the Hubble Space Telescope to begin the first steps in probing this planet’s atmosphere and to see what’s there. There is also further work to done to know for sure whether the star is as inactive at high energies as believed.”
Astronomers will also be awaiting the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope next year, which is tipped to revolutionise research into exoplanets.
“It will be able to find water, ozone, methane, and even carbon dioxide in this planet’s atmosphere. So the future is very exciting indeed,” Dr Dittmann said.