A newly-discovered planet just 40 light years from Earth may be our best chance of finding life beyond the solar system, astronomers claim.
The so-called super-Earth orbits in the habitable zone of a faint star, raising hopes that its surface could support liquid water and life.
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said Harvard’s Jason Dittmann, the leader of the team which discovered LHS 1140b.
In addition to a wet surface, planets must also sustain an atmosphere to be considered a candidate in the search for alien life.
LHS 1140b orbits a red dwarf, a kind of star that during its youth pumps out radiation which damages the atmospheres of orbiting planets.
But it’s hoped that LHS 1140b could have replenished its atmosphere and surface water after the star calmed to its current, steady glow.
Due to its size, LHS 1140b may support a magma ocean, which over millions of year would have fed steam into its atmosphere, replenishing the planet with water, the astronomers suggested.
“The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable,” said team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland. “LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars.”
The planet is only 1.4 times larger than Earth, but has a mass seven times greater, indicating it’s likely to be made of rock with a dense iron core.
The news comes on the heels of two other major exoplanet discoveries.
In February, NASA announced that it had discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star in the Trappist-1 system.
And last August, astronomers revealed that Proxima b, a planet orbiting the nearest star to our own, could also support life.
But the researchers said the LHS 1140 system could be the best hunting ground yet.
Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, two of the European members, said in a statement: “The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1.
“This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!”
NASA’s Most Famous Images
Edward H. White II, pilot of the Gemini 4 spacecraft, floats in the zero gravity of space with an earth limb backdrop circa November 1965.
Kinescope images of astronaut Commander Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 space shuttle during the space mission to land on the moon for the first time in history on July 20, 1969
The ascent stage of Orion, the Apollo 16 Lunar Module, lifts of from its descent stage to rendezvous with the Apollo 16 Command and Service Module, Casper, with astronaut Thomas Mattingly aboard in lunar orbit on 23rd April 1972.
Five NASA astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis look out overhead windows on the aft flight deck toward their counterparts aboard the Mir Space Station in March of 1996.
Photograph of the Milky Way Galaxy captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Dated 2007.
The exhaust plume from space shuttle Atlantis is seen through the window of a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as it launches from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying NASA's first Orion deep space exploration craft sits on its launch pad as it is prepared for a 7:05 AM launch on December 4, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A military pilot sits in the cockpit of an X-15 experimental rocket aircraft, wearing an astronaut's spacesuit circa 1959.
Echo 1, a spherical balloon with a metalized skin, was launched by NASA on 12th August 1960. Once in orbit the balloon was inflated until it reached its intended diameter of 30 metres and it was then used as a reflector to bounce radio signals across the oceans.
Four views of Earth rising above the lunar horizon, photographed by the crew of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, while in lunar orbit, May 1969.
American geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Hagan Schmitt stands next to the US flag on the surface of the moon, during a period of EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site, December 1972.
The space shuttle 'Enterprise' (NASA Orbiter Vehicle 101) makes its way along Rideout Road (Alabama State Route 255) to the Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Alabama, 15th March 1978.
A crowd of people, viewed from behind, watch the launch of the first NASA Space Shuttle mission (STS-1), with Columbia (OV-102) soaring up into the sky, leaving a trail of exhaust smoke, in the distance from the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 12 April 1981.
Astronaut Bruce McCandless II photographed at his maximum distance (320 ft) from the Space Shuttle Challenger during the first untethered EVA, made possible by his nitrogen jet propelled backpack (Manned Manuevering Unit or MMU) in 1984.
Aerial shot of the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-41-D) as it takes off, leaving a trail of exhaust smoke, from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 30 August 1984.
Two technicians inside a Space Shuttle external tank, circa 1985.
An astronaut's bootprint leaves a mark on the lunar surface July 20, 1969 on the moon. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999.
Astronaut Charles Moss Duke, Jr. leaves a photograph of his family on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, 23rd April 1972.