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Super Earth? Planet Hunters Find Another ‘Earthy’ Planet in Our Galactic Neighborhood

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This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host star, named LHS 1140. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA VOA
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April 19, 2017: The hits, they just keep coming!

News was made in February when astronomers found seven potential earth-like planets orbiting the red dwarf star Trappist-1.

Wednesday, another red dwarf star is making headlines with the announcement of a ‘super earth’ found orbiting around the small red star LHS 1140.

Super Earth?

Artist’s impression of the super-Earth exoplanet LHS 1140b. Credit: ESO/spaceengine.org

VOA spoke with Jason Dittmann, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, about the find.

He is the lead author of the paper laying out the new findings, which is being published Thursday in the journal Nature.

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He calls the planet a “Super Earth,” not because it’s any better than our blue-green sphere, but because it “is somewhere between the size of the Earth (the largest rocky planet in the Solar System) and Neptune. These planets are actually pretty common, but we don’t have any of them in our own Solar System so we don’t know much about them.”

Finding one is a big deal in general. But this one, dubbed LHS 1140b, is extra-special because it has turned up in the dwarf star’s habitable zone, that area in space where liquid water can exist on the surface.

The planet is 10 times closer to the star than Earth is to the sun, but red dwarfs are much smaller and much cooler than the giant inferno that keeps us warm.

The other special thing about this planet is that it’s about 5 billion years old, and according to Dittmann, “Five billion years should be more than enough time for life to develop [if it’s easy to develop, no one knows!] So this is definitely a good thing.”

Too close for comfort

In general, one big problem with the habitable planets scientists have found around red dwarfs — and this goes for a few of the seven they’ve found on Trappist-1 — and Proxima b, another found last year — is that they are so close to their star that the stellar radiation that is bombarding the planets can literally strip away any atmosphere.

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And this may be the case here.

But LHS 1140, according to team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru, “spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars.” That’s good news because the planet is so old and so big that chances are decent that it’s managed to hold onto an atmosphere.

Another bit of good news is that terrestrial planet LHS 1140b as seen from earth passes almost directly in front of its star, and that makes it a lot easier to do follow up research that Dittmann and his colleagues are already planning.
“We’re definitely already applying for as much telescope time as we can get our hands on,” Dittmann says, “to start looking at this planet’s atmosphere. And when the next generation of telescopes come online [The James Webb Space Telescope, and the ground-based Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and European-Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) ], we’ll be in a great spot to find out what sorts of atmospheres planets around M dwarfs have.”

The Webb telescope is expected to launch next year, but the Giant Magellan telescope won’t be online until 2025, and the EELT won’t be working until 2024.

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That’s a long time to wait, and undoubtedly there’ll be a long list of planets to explore by then. But the hope is that by studying the atmosphere of all these planets in the habitable zone, we might find some of the biological signatures of living things. Two of the European members of the team, Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils say that it’s the best candidate so far.

“The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterization of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1. This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!” wrote Delfosse and Bonfils.

And there certainly will be more on the way. (VOA)

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NASA’s Webb Telescope to Unravel Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Mystery

They will be able to observe infrared wavelengths that could shed light on what causes the spot's iconic colour

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NASA's stunning footage of Cassini lands Emmy nomination
NASA's stunning footage of Cassini lands Emmy nomination. Pixabay

NASAs James Webb Space Telescope will use its unparalleled infrared capabilities to study Jupiters Great Red Spot, shedding new light on the enigmatic storm, the US space agency said.

Led by Leigh Fletcher, a senior research fellow from the University of Leicester, the scientists plan to use Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) to create multispectral maps of the Great Red Spot and analyse its thermal, chemical and cloud structures.

They will be able to observe infrared wavelengths that could shed light on what causes the spot’s iconic colour.

The colour has often been attributed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation interacting with nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus-bearing chemicals that are lifted from Jupiter’s deeper atmosphere by powerful atmospheric currents within the storm.

Fletcher explained that using MIRI to observe in the 5 to 7 micrometer range could be particularly revealing for the Great Red Spot, as observations in such wavelengths are not possible from Earth.

Those wavelengths of light could allow the scientists to see unique chemical byproducts of the storm, which would give insight into its composition.

jupiter
Jupiter. Pixabay

“We’ll be looking for signatures of any chemical compounds that are unique to the (Great Red Spot) … which could be responsible for the red chromophores,” Fletcher noted.

Chromophores are the parts of molecules responsible for their colour.

Webb’s observations may also help determine whether the Great Red Spot is generating heat and releasing it into Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, a phenomenon that could explain the high temperatures in that region.

Generations of astronomers have studied the Great Red Spot; the storm has been monitored since 1830, but it has possibly existed for more than 350 years.

Also Read: NASA’s Curiosity Rover Captures Images of Martian Dust Storm

The reason for the storm’s longevity largely remains a mystery, and Fletcher explained that the key to understanding the formation of storms on Jupiter is to witness their full life cycle — growing, shrinking, and eventually dying.

We did not see the Great Red Spot form, and it may not die anytime soon (though it has been shrinking, as documented by images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories), so scientists must rely on observing “smaller and fresher” storms on the planet to see how they begin and evolve, something that Webb may do in the future, said Fletcher. (IANS)