Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Most habitable planets likely to be waterworlds

In the more hospitable environment on LHS 1140b, a vast magma ocean could have fed steam into the atmosphere, replenishing the planet with water, the scientists said.

Thus, LHS 1140b is located in the so-called "habitable zone", the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water. These planets are more massive than Earth but lighter than gas giants like Neptune or Uranus, and they're also fairly common throughout our galaxy. But it's much more massive at almost seven times the mass of Earth. But LHS 1140b's red dwarf star (named LHS 1140) is tinier and a lot cooler than our sun.

Local astronomer Thiam-Guan Tan, a retired engineer with a fascination for the stars, was part of an global team that concentrated on the search for planets in a particular part of space a year ago.

The quest to discover definitively whether life could have been sustained elsewhere in the universe has been intensifying since the first planet outside our solar system was found in 1992.

In 2015, Dittman was going over some observation data of small red stars collected by two robotically controlled observatories, called the MEarth Project, when he spotted something promising.

In what has been described as one of the most important discoveries of its kind in the past decade, the existence of Planet LHS1140b - about 40 per cent bigger than Earth - will be revealed today in the prestigious journal Nature by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. The astronomers estimate the planet is at least five billion years old, and deduce that it has a diameter of nearly 18,000 kilometers (11,185 mi)- 1.4 times larger than that of the Earth.

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'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.

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the previous year we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too. The distance between LHS1140b and its host star is about 8 percent of the distance between Earth and the Sun, but the amount of high-energy radiation it receives is still relatively low. "This star that LHS 1140b orbits seems to be quiet, so it's not going to damage the planet's atmosphere or anything on its surface", Dittmann explained.

Its density is one of the main reasons for considering the planet a possible location for extraterrestrial life. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained. Further observations were then made by the European Southern Observatory's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), from which, among other things, astronomers were able to calculate LHS 1140b's size, density and orbital period, as well as take an informed stab at its age.

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. TRAPPIST-1 is just a little too dim to do this, Dittmann argues. "We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman.

The new planet was found using eight small telescopes in Chile and help from an amateur planet-hunter, Charbonneau said.

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