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

LHS 1140 artist impression

Super-Earth is a rocky, temperate planet orbiting a red dwarf star, Efe news agency reported.

Astronomers will now use the Hubble Space Telescope to try to work out how much life-destroying radiation is currently being showered upon LHS 1140b.

Astronomers estimate the planet to be at least five billion years old - about the same age as the Earth and long enough for life to have evolved. And it may even have an atmosphere. "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science: searching for evidence of life beyond Earth", he said.

One way to hunt exoplanets, a field launched a quarter of a century ago, is to analyse tiny dips in starlight that occur when a planet transits in front of its star. Meaning, one side of the planet always faces the star while the other faces away.

A super-Earth is an extrasolar planet with a mass higher than Earth's, but substantially below the masses of the Solar System's giants, Uranus and Neptune, which contain 15 and 17 Earth masses respectively.

This red dwarf, however, probably had a much more active youth, during which it would have bathed the planet in harsher ultraviolet light, potentially stripping water from any existing atmosphere and contributing to a runaway greenhouse effect.

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LHS 1140b's dense metal core, however, might mean that it was covered by an ocean of magma during its host star's insane youthful period.

But if the planet can shield and hide its water source from this heat, it would be saved, Dittman said.

LHS 1140 b or TRAPPIST-1?

When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them.

LHS 1140b's star is comparatively larger than TRAPPIST-1 and brighter, so it could be an object of study for future ground-based telescopes in addition to the James Webb Space Telescope.

In August, scientists announced the discovery of Proxima b.

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Furthermore, scientists believe that the red dwarf, as we see it today, is emitting less high-energy radiation and spinning slower than other stars of its type, both of which are factors conducive to life. In fact, these planets can be made of rocky surfaces, just like Earth, or thick hydrogen and helium gases with no surface at all.

But Dittman thinks that the TRAPPIST-1 planets and LHS 1140b are exciting in their own right, and all deserve to be studied further.

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann said. Other signs it could be habitable would be nitrogen molecules.

'The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1, ' two members of the worldwide team, Drs Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, said.

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. "But hopefully someday very soon we can start confronting those theories with real data!"

"We'll be basically trying to [study] this planet with everything we have", Jason Dittmann, an astronomer at Harvard and the study's lead author, tells The Verge. They want to confirm the existence of the planet's atmosphere and find out if it has molecular oxygen or water, and if it's similar to Earth. "We're essentially running down the list of the thing we want in a habitable planet and checking the boxes".

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