Another nearby planet found that may be just right for life

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"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade", lead author and Harvard staffer Jason Dittmann said in the ESO statement.

On top of that, "statistical results suggest that the nearest transiting Earth-sized planet in the liquid-water, habitable zone of an M dwarf star is probably around 10.5 parsecs [or 34 light-years] away". Almost seven times more massive than Earth, it is probably made in good part of rock, the researchers say in a study in this week's Nature.

For life as we know it to exist, a planet must have liquid surface water and retain an atmosphere.

The fact that LHS 1140b is a super-Earth is a bit concerning to any hopes that - if humans ever manage to master interstellar travel - we could one day settle the planet and establish a colony. It's not too hot and not too cold, it's just right - hence the term Goldilocks zone.

The scientists aren't wasting any time following up with observations: the next transit (where the planet crosses in front of the star) will occur on October 26 and they've booked several telescopes in Chile to search for signatures of oxygen molecules in the planet's atmosphere.

In a study now published in the journal Nature, scientists report their observations of an M dwarf star called LHS 1140.

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. But the smaller size of the star is offset by its proximity. But when the planet is not visible, it is possible to observe the motion of the star and determine how much it is being moved by the planet's gravity. One of these factors is the red dwarf around which the distant world orbits. By measuring how much light this planet blocks, the team determined that it is about 11,000 miles in diameter, or about 40 percent larger than Earth.

"Right now we're just making educated guesses about the content of this planet's atmosphere", Dittmann said.

There are also lessons to glean from, and apply to, the TRAPPIST-1 system whose discovery was announced in February this year.

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Next up, scientists will continue observing the newest super-Earth using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, in hopes of figuring out what kind of atmosphere the planet has, or if it even has one at all.

Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Observatory of the Sciences of the Universe in Grenoble, France, said LHS 1140b now "joins Trappist-1 at the head of the rankings". The James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch into space in 2018, could also search 1140b for ozone, which is made of oxygen.

"We originally thought it was just something amusing going on in the atmosphere", Harvard astronomer Jason Dittmann, the study's lead author, told Gizmodo.

Though it's much closer to its sun than Earth is to ours, LHS 1140 is a lot cooler than our life-giving buddy. This puts the planet potentially in the habitable zone.

This super-Earth, dubbed LHS 1140b, may be astronomer's best candidate yet in the search for alien life, the researchers claim.

In the case of LHS 1140b, the starlight is bright, the orbit is only 25 days and the planet is seen nearly edge-on from Earth.

The new planet was found using eight small telescopes in Chile and help from an amateur planet-hunter, Charbonneau said. And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water.

He is excited about eventually answering the question of whether or not we're alone in the unvierse.