Newly discovered ‘super-Earth’ offers best chance of finding alien life

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Embargoed to 1800 Wednesday April 19 Undated handout artist’s impression of the newly discovered super-Earth passing in front of its host star. The planet could be the best candidate yet for a world beyond the solar system that harbours life, say scientists. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday April 19, 2017. See PA story SCIENCE Planet. Photo credit should read: M. Weiss/CfA/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

Scientists are excited about a newly discovered planet, which ‘offers the best chance of finding alien life’.

The planet is 39 light years away in the constellation of Cetus (often called ‘the whale’ or ‘the seamonster’).

It is 1.4 times the size of earth, but its mass is seven times greater, implying it is a dense world made of rock with an iron core – like our own planet, rather than a gas planet like Saturn.

Also like our own planet, it’s thought to be at least five billion years old, allowing for the possibility of life to evolve.

Newly discovered 'super-Earth' offers best chance of finding alien life
It’s in the constellation of Cetus, meaning the sea monster in Greek (Picture: Getty)

Temperatures there are mild enough for surface water to exist, which – along with an atmosphere – is necessary for life as we know it.

‘We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science – searching for evidence of life beyond Earth,’ Harvard astrophysicist Dr Jason Dittman said of the findings, reported in the journal Nature.

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‘This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade.’

Newly discovered 'super-Earth' offers best chance of finding alien life
An artists’s impression of the (catchily named) planet LHS 1140b (Picture: ESO/spaceengine.org)

He described it as ‘a temperate rocky super-Earth transiting a nearby cool star.’

It is in orbit around a faint dwarf star called LHS 1140, and is in the middle of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ – not so close (and hot) that nothing can survive, and not so far away that it’s a frozen wasteland.

There’s only a small area where temperatures are mild enough for water, and this planet is in the right place.

Its star also emits less radiation than many other red dwarfs, making the planet more likely to have preserved an atmosphere.

Alien life in our solar system?

Earlier this week Nasa announced the possibility of alien life on one of Saturn’s moons.

Scientists said they are ‘not making any claims’ at this point – but said they found evidence of an energy source which could sustain life. 

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Enceladus is the only place beyond Earth where scientists have found direct evidence of this, according to the findings in the journal Science.

BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE Undated Nasa handout photo of one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. Life could exist on Enceladus around hydrothermal vents similar to those found at the bottom of Earth's oceans, scientists believe. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday April 13, 2017. The "exciting" discovery was made after the space probe Cassini flew through spray bursting from the moon's cracked icy surface. Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy. See PA story SCIENCE Enceladus. Photo credit should read: JPL/Nasa/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons (Picture: PA)

Ice plumes from the moon, which has an ocean, contain hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, which some researchers think is similar to the environment that led to life on Earth four billion years ago.

The discovery was made using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which ends a 13-year mission to Saturn in September.

‘If correct, this observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus,’ geochemist Jeffrey Seewald, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in a related commentary in Science.

The discovery of the super-Earth was made in Chile, using a powerful telescope which detected tell-tale dips in light as the planet passed in front of its star.

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Follow-up observations of the super-Earth studied the star’s ‘wobble’ caused by a gravitational tug of war with the planet and confirmed the presence of a super-Earth.

Another Earth-sized planet recently discovered orbiting a second red dwarf 39 light years away could be a steamy ‘water world’, scientists believe.

Astronomers detected signs of a watery atmosphere around the super-Earth GJ 1132b.

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