SUPER-EARTH, 39 LIGHT YEARS AWAY

Alien life is a subject that baffles more people, especially now with the advancement of science that triggers off more capacity for research and technological means, which will enable us to travel far beyond outer space where all the mysteries of a gigantic universe seem almost impenetrable.

A super-earth discovered 39 light years away could be the best candidate yet for a world that harbours life beyond our solar system, according to scientists. The planet circles a famous dwarf star in the constellation Citus and lies at the heart of the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. It has been designated a super-earth because it is 1.4 times the size of our planet, but its mass is 7 times greater, implying a dense world made of rock with an iron core.

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Scientists say it is 11,000 miles in diameter, compared with Earth’s 7,918 miles. The exoplanet – a term for planets that orbit a star – other than our own – has been named LHS1140b. Lead scientist Dr Jason Dittmann, from the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Massachusetts said: ‘This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade. We could hardly hope for a better target on one of the biggest quests in science-searching for evidence of life beyond earth.’

LHS1140b is 10 times closer to its parent star than Earth, but because a red dwarf is far cooler than our own yellow dwarf sun, the planet still sits in the habitable zone. Its star also emits less radiation than many other red dwarfs, making the planet more likely to have preserved an atmosphere.

Astronomers estimate the planet to be at least 5 billion years old, about the same age as the Earth and long enough for life to have evolved. The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, was made using the MEarth-South telescope Array and the Cerrotololo inter-American Observatory in Chile which detected tell-tale dips in light as the planet passed in front of its host star. Follow-up observation studied the star’s ‘wobble’ caused by the gravitational tug of war with the planet and confirmed the presence of a super-earth.

Another earth-sized planet recently discovered, orbiting a second red dwarf 39 light years away, could be a steamy water world, scientists believe. Recent months have seen several important announcements in the hunt for life outside our solar system. In February, scientists said they had found a solar system strikingly similar to ours, which they called Trappist-1. It contains seven Earth-style worlds. Last year it was revealed the nearest star beyond our Sun, Proxima Centauri, is also orbited by an Earth-sized planet.

Much closer to home in cosmic terms, NASA announced recently that practically all the elements for life have been found on one of Saturn’s icy moons, around 800 million miles from Earth. Hydrogen cover – a so far missing ingredient – was uncovered on Enceladus by spacecraft Cassini as it dived into jets of water shooting through the moon’s surface from an underground ocean. It means Saturn’s six moons may have the same single-celled organisms with which life began on Earth; these creatures, still found on our planet within the darkest depths of our oceans, use hydrogen and carbon dioxide as fuel.

All I can say is lucky are those of us who have a long life and subsequently bear witness to the marvels that constitute the unthinkable, where infinity unveils the enormity of a creation which defies the comprehension of us mortals.

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