Scientists believe a super-sized Earth like planet only thirty nine light years away could be close enough for them to determine if it contains life. LHS 1140b is one of the closest planets to us that is within the habitable zone, and was first sighted in 2014, but it was not immediately identified as a planet until Jason Dittmann, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used several academic telescopes to confirm its’ existence.
Roughly seven times the size of our Earth, its’ discovery was a major victory for the space science community. After the planet’s location was confirmed, scientists were able to determine that it was likely it contained liquid water and enough light to potentially harbour life. Although it is thirty nine light years away, scientists believe that they will be able to discern whether or not LHS 1140b has an atmosphere and contains life thanks to several new generation high-powered telescopes due to come into service fairly soon.
There are multiple factors working in this planet’s favour, apart from its’ position from its’ sun and the presence of water, it is also a rocky world with mild temperatures, which scientists believe may increase the chance of life being present. Releasing the results of their preliminary research of LHS 1140b in this week’s Nature, Dittmann is hopeful at the prospect of finding life on this distant planet, a feat which has yet to be reached by the scientific community.
According to a database maintained at the University of Puerto Rico, there are over twenty Earth-sized planets that have liquid water, which would suggest the presence of life, but until now, none had been within the range of our telescopes. At the moment, our hopes rest on the telescopes currently under construction in Chile which are due to be completed soon, whilst NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which should be operational in 2018, is also expected to provide some support.
Once up and running those telescopes should be able to tell us whether or not LHS 1140b has breathable oxygen and any type of atmosphere. Additionally, there is some hope within the scientific community that these new additions could also be used to identify similar attributes on the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, where several habitable zone planets were identified. Although morale is high surrounding the discovery of these relatively close planets, many are still tempering the expectations in case none of them yield any sign of life or redeeming properties.