A newly-discovered planet just 40 light years from Earth may be our best chance of finding life beyond the solar system, astronomers claim.
The so-called super-Earth orbits in the habitable zone of a faint star, raising hopes that its surface could support liquid water and life.
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said Harvard’s Jason Dittmann, the leader of the team which discovered LHS 1140b.
In addition to a wet surface, planets must also sustain an atmosphere to be considered a candidate in the search for alien life.
LHS 1140b orbits a red dwarf, a kind of star that during its youth pumps out radiation which damages the atmospheres of orbiting planets.
But it’s hoped that LHS 1140b could have replenished its atmosphere and surface water after the star calmed to its current, steady glow.
Due to its large size, LHS 1140b may support a magma ocean, which over millions of year would have fed steam into its atmosphere, replenishing the planet with water, the astronomers suggested.
“The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable,” said team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland. “LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars.”
The planet is only 1.4 times larger than Earth, but has a mass seven times greater, indicating it’s likely to be made of rock with a dense iron core.
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The news comes on the heels of two other major exoplanet discoveries.
In February, NASA announced that it had discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star in the Trappist-1 system.
And last August, astronomers revealed that Proxima b, a planet orbiting the nearest star to our own, could also support life.
But the researchers said the LHS 1140 system could be the best hunting ground yet.
Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, two of the European members, said in a statement: “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.
“This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!”
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