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This potentially balmy super-Earth makes for a tempting case study in habitability

Monday, May 15, 2017 22:40
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A new, nearby exoplanet could be just the boilerplate needed to find out if life could exist in untold numbers of star systems.


The planet, LHS 1140b, is 39 light years away. It orbits a small M-dwarf star every 24 days. The planet itself is 1.4 times larger and 6.6 times more massive than Earth, and the principal investigators of the study published today in Nature believe it to be rocky.


Our list of exoplanets is long — nearly 3,500 strong, with new planets coming every week. But the list of potentially habitable exoplanets is much shorter, topping out around a dozen. Most on that list are around M-dwarfs like LHS 1140. That’s because they’re the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from.


A planet is considered habitable when it’s in an area where liquid water might exist. But there’s a problem with planets around M-dwarfs, also known as red dwarfs: Tiny red dwarfs start out as furious flare machines, which could violently strip away primordial atmospheres around recently formed planets. And this could happen on the timescale of 3 billion years.


“There has been lots of debate about whether these planets can maintain a magnetic field (and if that’s important for habitability) and if M-dwarf planets lose their atmospheres in their host star’s active youth,” principal investigator Jason Dittman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Astronomy. “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.”


There’s been compelling evidence lately that some of these planets around red dwarfs could, in fact, retain an atmosphere.That’s the case of GJ 1132b, a hellish world with Venus-like temperatures around an M-dwarf star that, despite all odds, seems to hold on to an atmosphere.


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