Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

As the planet heated up, a steaming ocean of lava conceivably provided water vapor to replenish the atmosphere.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Astronomers have found yet another planet that seems to have just the right Goldilocks combination for life: Not so hot and not so cold. Several have been found in the habitable zone of their stars through NASA's Kepler and K2 missions, although they are farther away and could later be proven to be gaseous.

A lot of planets that big are gaseous, but researchers say this one is rocky, made up of iron and silicates, just like Earth.

It's the fifth such life-possible planet outside our solar system revealed in less than a year.

The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995, but thanks to new techniques and especially NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope, the number of them has exploded in recent years.

Exoplanet discoveries in the past decade have made it clear there are plenty of other solar systems, but in the a year ago we've increasingly spotted new worlds that indicate there may be plenty of other Earths out there too.

He's also lead author of a paper on the discovery (PDF link) to be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau said what makes this planet so exciting is that it is rocky and regularly passes in front of its star. Scientists could then search for and identify specific gases in this atmosphere, via a technique called transmission spectroscopy (see box).

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Scientists believe that one of the major factors that governed the emergence of life on Earth was the presence of liquid water, and so telescopes target distant worlds capable of harboring this precious resource when searching for the hallmarks of life beyond our planet.

The planet is in orbit around a dim red dwarf called LHS 1140, which is located a mere 40 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Cetus - in astronomical terms, that's pretty close. A person weighing 167 pounds would feel like 500 pounds on this planet.

The prospects for spotting signs of life on super-Earth LHS 1140-b are even better, because unlike with Proxima b, we're aligned at a almost ideal angle to observe it as it passes in front of its star every 25 days. Thirty-two of the potentially habitable planets found so far are considered super-Earth sized.

More observations using the Hubble Space Telescope are underway and the researchers are already using everything they can to study the planet and its atmosphere.

A light year is the distance light travels in a year - almost six trillion miles.

The seven known planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system make transits, which fortunately allows for further study. But Proxima b's position means astronomers can't get a good, hard look at the planet's atmosphere, if it has one. Charbonneau said recent studies show that the Trappist planets may not be rocky like Earth, while Trappist discoverer Michael Gillon said the newest planet has such intense gravity that its atmosphere may be smooshed down so telescopes can't get a good look at it.

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