A newly-found planet is the best ever place to find aliens, scientists have announced.
The super-Earth named LHS1140b is the “most exciting exoplanet” seen in years and humanity could “hardly hope for a better target” to find aliens, according to the researchers who discovered it.
The planet is much ten times closer to its star than we are. But its own sun is a red dwarf, so it only receives about half as much sunlight and lies right in the middle of the habitable zone.
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“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
At the moment the star — which is named LHS 1140 and is in the constellation Cetus or the sea monster — is at a point that means it would be particularly useful to any alien life supported by it.
“The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable — LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars,” said team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from the Geneva Observatory, Switzerland, in a statement.
Scientists found the star by seeing it block out a little of the sun’s light when it passes in front of it, every 25 days. Its orbit is seen almost edge-on from Earth, making it easier to spot.
The star might also help give the planet water and an atmosphere, which are both required for life as we know it to exist. Red dwarfs usually send out radiation that could damage any environment — but the new star is so big that it could support a magma ocean on its surface that would send out steam into the atmosphere and help keep it replenished with water.
The super-Earth is about five billion years old, according to the astronomers that found it. It has a diameter about 1.4 times bigger than Earth, they said, but it has a much larger mass and density, meaning that it is probably made of rock and has a dense iron core.
The planet might be an even better candidate than other, recently announced best hopes for life, like Proxima b or Trappist-1, the researchers said.
Scientists will be able to use new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope to work out exactly how much radiation falls on the planet, and so how good it might be at supporting life. In the future, they will be able to use new and more powerful equipment like the Extremely Large Telescope to get detailed pictures of the atmospheres of the exoplanets, and understand what life might be like there.