Alien Planet Could Have Life

A recently discovered planet orbiting a star just 40 light-years from Earth might be home to alien life.

The planet is called LHS 1140b and meets all the conditions scientists look for when determining if life--as we know it--could survive on the alien planet. LHS 1140b orbits its sun in what is called "the habitable zone"--the perfect distance from the sun that keeps the planet not too hot and not too cold to sustain life. Liquid water is potentially present on the planet's surface. This alien world is also rocky, like Earth.

All these factors combined make LHS 1140b a prime candidate for an alien homeworld.

This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade.
Jason Dittmann, one of the planet's researchers, said that his team could not hope for a better candidate to study the possibility that life exists on other planets. Although thousands of planets have been discovered in the past 20 years due to advances in science, LHS 1140b is a prime candidate for study due to the way it travels around its sun.

A planet that may have life in transit.
This image shows what a planet looks like as it is in transit across the sun. [Image by NASA/Getty Images]

Other planets have been discovered that might contain alien life, like Proxima b, an exo-planet only 4.2 light years away from Earth. However, Proxima b does not transit its parent star and studying its atmosphere is much more difficult.

LHS 1140b, in contrast, is in the perfect position for atmospheric studies.

Using the transit method, scientists try to collect data on how much starlight passes through the planet's atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere means more light passes through, and scientists have an easier time telling what chemical compounds make up the atmosphere of the alien planet.

Scientists can learn a lot about a planet from its atmosphere. A planet with oxygen or carbon dioxide would be a perfect candidate to harbor life.

Scientists were also successful at measuring the new planet's density. Further study will give them clues about the planet's gravity--higher density means higher gravity, which makes further study easier and suggests an environment comparable to Earth's.

However, LHS 1140b has some important differences with Earth. For one, the alien planet is a little bit bigger, about one-and-a-half times the size of Earth. LHS 1140b is also more than six times heavier, causing scientists to refer to it as a super-Earth.

Other important differences come from the planet's sun. This planet only gets about half as much sunlight as we are used to on Earth, and the sun it orbits is also much cooler than ours.

Alien planet with life.
An artist's depiction of what the surface of the alien homeworld might look like. [Image by NASA/Getty Images]

Scientists still feel excited about LHS 1140b's location because it is much closer to its sun. So even though the sun it orbits is smaller and cooler, the alien planet might be the perfect distance away to be warm enough to sustain life.

However, planets that are this close to the sun might have had to contend with explosive bouts of radiation earlier when the sun was hotter and more active. If alien life was ever present on LHS 1140b, it could have been wiped out early on from these deadly X-rays.

Therefore, more study is needed and scientists are excited to do it.

Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington, summed up why the discovery of this alien planet is so important in the search for life.

"M dwarfs are the most common type of star in the galaxy, and the discovery of LHS 1140b provides us with an excellent opportunity to learn more about whether planets orbiting these stars are habitable. If planets like LHS 1140b orbiting M dwarfs can be habitable, then it will increase the potential prevalence of life throughout the galaxy."
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]