“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the last decade,” says lead researcher Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“We could not have a better destiny to perform one of the greatest missions of science – in search of evidence of life outside the Earth.” LHS 1140b is what is called a superterra – a planet with more mass than Earth.
In this case, the exoplanet has an approximate mass seven times greater than Earth, but is only 1.4 times its size – what the team attributes to a much higher density, it is likely to consist of a dense iron core. But what makes LHS 1140b so intriguing for its subsequent analysis is not its size or mass – it is the fact that it orbits within the habitable zone of its star, a tenuous red dwarf named LHS 1140, located in the constellation Cetus.
LHS 1140b is actually 10 times closer to its star than the Earth of the Sun – and considering that the star LHS 1140 is also significantly colder and less bright than the Sun, this means that the exoplanet would not be fried by proximity; And probably would receive only half the light that the Earth receives from the Sun.
“The current conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favorable,” says a team member , astronomer Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland. “LHS 1140 rotates more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars.” That is important because the amount of heat and light coming from the star is not so hot so liquid water could exist on the planetary surface – something that is essential to life as we know it.
The researchers detected the exoplanet LHS 1140b using the European Southern Observatory (ESO) HARPS instrument located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. It is estimated that the exoplanet is 5 billion years old, and may not have always been so hospitable – most likely the red dwarf star when he was younger may have been more volatile, which could have stripped the atmosphere of water Of LHS 1140b, if you ever had one.
The team is hopeful though that the planet may have retained or recovered an atmosphere, perhaps by trapping the steam generated by the magma oceans that may have boiled on the surface in its distant past.
To help verify this hypothesis, the team intends to further study the planet with the Hubble Space Telescope and soon with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope , which will be finalized in 2024.
Of course, it is not the only distant world with which astronomers are enormously motivated in recent times. Earlier this month, scientists announced the detection of an atmosphere around another super-Earth called Gliese 1132b.
However, we can not celebrate the discovery of a “planet with extraterrestrial life”, because even though these distant exoplanets offer promising signs of habitability, it is not the confirmation that there is life until we know much more. But we can not stop being enthusiastic when listening to comments from researchers like the following:
“The LHS 1140 system could become an even more important goal for the future than other planets previously discovered, such as TRAPPIST-1,” explained Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils of the Center for Scientific Research.
“This year has been extraordinary for the discoveries of exoplanets!”