Super-Earth orbiting nearby star boosts search for alien life

By Richard Ingham and Laurence Coustal, AFP

PARIS — Astronomers on Wednesday announced the discovery of a super-Earth orbiting a nearby star which may offer the most promising target yet in the search for life beyond the Solar System. Named LHS 1140b, the planet orbits a star 40 light-years away, circling it in the coveted “Goldilocks” zone. This is the distance from a star where the temperature is not too hot, nor too cold, but just right.

So if there is water, the stuff of life, it can exist encouragingly in liquid form and not as rock-solid ice or vapor. Previous worlds in this temperate zone have already been spotted, notably a clutch unveiled just two months ago to great fanfare. But LHS 1140b is exceptional because of its location. Astronomers have a relatively grandstand view of it, and already some beguiling things are known. 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. From these minute changes, useful but sketchy details can be gleaned about the passing object. In the case of LHS 1140b, the starlight is bright, the orbit is only 25 days and the planet is seen almost edge-on from Earth. As a result, astronomers have been able to get close, frequent looks at the all-important light signature — a big plus in the drive to figure out a planet’s size, mass and possible atmosphere. “This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in decades,” said Jason Dittmann of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the team. “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.” Planet of the Sea Monster LHS 1140b, whose discovery is published in the journal Nature, orbits a so-called red dwarf star called LHS 1140 in the constellation of Cetus, the Sea Monster. The planet’s orbit is 10 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, according to early measurements.

In our Solar System, such a planet would be so scorched that any atmosphere and surface water would be stripped away. But red dwarves are much smaller and cooler than our Sun — LHS 1140b receives only half as much sunlight as we do.