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In this artist tendering provided by M. Weiss Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a newly-discovered rocky exoplanet, LHS 1140b. This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host star, a small, faint red star named LHS 1140. The planet weighs about 6.6 times the mass of Earth and is shown passing in front of LHS 1140. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained. (M. Weiss Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics via AP)

A massive 'super-Earth' might be near enough to spot signs of life


A rocky planet dubbed a "super-Earth" is close enough to home that astronomers may be able to detect signs of life. 

A study published in Nature said the planet was first spotted in September 2014, but the potential for life wasn't clear until it was re-analyzed in 2014. 

The planet, referred to as LHS 1140b, is 39 light years from our solar system. It's not exactly a day trip, but powerful telescopes could theoretically spot oxygen molecules swarming around it.

We'll be basically trying to [study] this planet with everything we have.
Jason Dittmann, study's lead author

The planet is seven times more massive than Earth (hence the "super-Earth" title), and its rocky nature makes it more likely to support life than gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn. And it's in the "habitable zone," the region where a planet is close enough to the sun for liquid water but not so far away that all life would freeze to death. 

nasa exoplanet.jpg

Two telescopes currently being built in Chile may be powerful enough to find the oxygen molecules on 1140b. Fortunately, its star is relatively dim, so astronomers are able to see the planet without being overwhelmed by the sunlight.

Astronomers determined the planet was rocky by measuring how its gravity affected its star, The Verge reports. The more a planet's gravity affects the star, the more massive it probably is. 

Conveniently, LHS 1140b's star isn't as prone to sending out solar flares as other stars of its type, further increasing the odds for life.

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