Most habitable planets likely to be waterworlds

Astronomers have found a temperate planet a bit bigger and bulkier than Earth, orbiting a small star just 40 light-years away.

According to a new publication in Nature, the global team of astronomers with the Mearth project used an array of eight telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to find LHS 1140b.

The giant mass of the new planet - around seven times larger than the Earth - and the subsequent much higher density led researchers to believe LHS 1140b is probably made of rock with a dense iron core. "The fact that the planet is rocky and in its star's habitable zone also raises its intrigue, because we may now have a planet suitable for the search for life as well". The astronomers estimate the planet is at least five billion years old, and deduce that it has a diameter of nearly 18,000 kilometers (11,185 mi)- 1.4 times larger than that of the Earth. According to the study published on Nature, it is situated just 40 light-years away from Earth and is said to be in the "Goldilocks region".

He approached the European Southern Observatory's HARPS team, home of the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, and they confirmed it.

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The super-Earth and its parent star are located in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, 39 light years from the Sun, thus - relatively speaking - putting it in our galactic "neighbourhood", according to Felipe Murgas, the coauthor of the study and a researcher with Spain's Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics.

Thirty-two of the potentially habitable planets found so far are considered super-Earth sized.

The LHS 1140b offers a great opportunity to test that proposition. "LHS 1140 is brighter at optical wavelengths because it's slightly bigger than the TRAPPIST-1 star". "This debate definitely isn't settled, and there are compelling reasons why these planets might lose their atmospheres and there are also ways that you can imagine it can hold onto its atmosphere".

The model predicts that most habitable planets are dominated by oceans spanning over 90 per cent of their surface area.This conclusion is reached because the Earth itself is very close to being a so-called "waterworld" - a world where all land is immersed under a single ocean.

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In the coming decades, LHS 1140b is sure to be investigated much more intensively, an ongoing project for the powerful next-generation telescopes, including the James Webb instrument and the E-ELT device, which will be installed in Chile and - within a few years - will be able to study the system and try to detect its atmosphere, along with other characteristics.

Still, studying LHS-1140b will mainly be for the future.

"The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable - LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars", explains team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland.

An artist's conception shows Kepler-22b, an exoplanet that orbits a Sun-like star within a habitable zone. "Our understanding of the development of life may be far from complete, but it is not so dire that we must adhere to the conventional approximation that all habitable planets have an equal chance of hosting intelligent life", Simpson said.

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