Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

  • Get News Alerts


Astronomers have found yet another planet that seems to have just the right Goldilocks combination for life: Not so hot and not so cold. It's not so far away, either.

This new, big, dense planet is rocky, like Earth, and has the right temperatures for water, putting it in the habitable zone for life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature .

It's the fifth such life-possible planet outside our solar system revealed in less than a year, but still relatively nearby Earth. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

"It is astonishing to live in a time when discovery of potentially habitable worlds is not only commonplace but proliferating," said MIT astronomer Sara Seager, who wasn't part of the study.

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. Astronomers have now identified 52 potentially habitable planets and more than 3,600 planets outside our solar system.

The latest discovery, called LHS 1140b, regularly passes in front of its star, allowing astronomers to measure its size and mass. That makes astronomers more confident that this one is rocky, compared to other recent discoveries.

In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet's path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study. If scientists see both oxygen and some carbon in an atmosphere, that's a promising sign that something could be living.

Outside astronomers have already put this new planet near the top of their must-see lists for new ground and space-based telescopes.

"This is the first one where we actually know it's rocky," Charbonneau said. "We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like."

Make that super-sized, because it belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

Compared to Earth, the new planet is big, pushing near the size limit for rocky planets. It's 40 percent wider than Earth but it has 6.6 times Earth's mass, giving it a gravitational pull three times stronger, Charbonneau said. A person weighing 167 pounds would feel like 500 pounds on this planet.

While many super-Earths are too big to have the right environment for life, 1140b is just small enough to make it a good candidate. Thirty-two of the potentially habitable planets found so far are considered super-Earth sized.

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

In the constellation Cetus, it is 39 light years or 230 trillion miles away. So are a group of seven mostly Earth-sized planets in or near the habitable zone found circling a star called Trappist-1 earlier this year, but it in a different direction. And in August, astronomers found that the nearest planet to Earth outside our solar system, only 25 trillion miles away, also could have the right temperature for life, but astronomers can't get a peek at its atmosphere.

"If you picture the Milky Way as the size of the United States, then these systems are all within the size of Central Park," Charbonneau said. "These are your neighbors."

The latest discoveries have their founders at odds over which of the planets are the most promising. 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.

Seven outside astronomers said the Milky Way is big enough for all the discoveries to be exciting, requiring more exploring.

Yale astronomer Greg Laughlin, who wasn't part of any of the teams, praised all the new findings but said the Trappist planets seem too light and the new one too dense for his taste: "I wouldn't book a trip to any of these planets."

Comments

More News

Opinion

  • Amendment of Education Act: A betrayal to capable candidates Amendment of Education Act: A betrayal to capable candidates

    Not all, but many of the temporary teachers who have been wishing to become permanent, no doubt, appointed on the basis of their political ideologies. They couldn't succeed in the examinations despite repeated attempts. They carried the bags of those parties during their teaching career.

    Manoj Sapkota

  • The Doklam dilemma The Doklam dilemma

    Being a buffer state between the two giant neighbors, Nepal should conduct its foreign policy vis-à-vis China and India in a very sensitive manner. Nepal has always maintained that it would not allow its soil to be used against any neighbor. At the same time, Nepal should make sure that its own national interests are never compromised.

    Gaurab Shumsher Thapa

Blog

  • The regional integration initiatives & Nepal The regional integration initiatives & Nepal

    For the small landlocked economies, such as Nepal, regional integration is more of a necessity than a policy option. The ideal way forward for Nepal to gain most out of the economic integration would be to identify the key areas in which Nepal could contribute and facilitate the promotion of those sectors.

    Sujan Adhikari

  • Repercussions of extreme materialism through the lens of American history Repercussions of extreme materialism through the lens of American history

    The invaders started embracing community values that helped them evolve from plunderers to freedom fighters. The alliance of the tribes “Iroquois Federate” became the basis for the government system of US that helped resist tyrannical British power for independence.

    Sanjaya Gajurel

Readers Column

  • Traffic Police in Kathmandu

    As busy and hassling as the traffic system in Kathmandu is, the Traffic Police here have to handle an equally strenuous job. Over 1,400 traffic officers in and around the Kathmandu Valley battle against the pestering traffic and air pollution each day.

  • Menstrual taboo outdated

    I have seen my sisters and friends isolated and treated in discriminatory manner during their first menstruation cycle. They were not allowed to look at the sun, to touch water source, flower, fruits, any male family member, nor even hear their voice. The activist may claim the situation has changed and I do agree but still during every month my loved ones turns into untouchables beings.

Popular

Recommended

Suchanapati