Scientists say huge ‘eyeball’ exoplanet could be ‘best bet’ of finding alien life

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A vast exoplanet which looks like a giant eyeball could the ‘best bet’ of finding alien life in the galaxies, scientists have said.

The exoplanet - called LHS 1140 b and orbiting a low-mass red dwarf star roughly one-fifth the size of the Sun – has been analyzed by a team led by Université de Montréal (UdeM) astronomers who used observations from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

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LHS 1140 b has captivated scientists due to it being one of the closest exoplanets to our Solar System – some 48 light years from Earth -and that lies within its star’s habitable zone, according to a statement by the university.

The researchers used the Webb telescope – which, since introduced in 20202, has led in a new era of scientific breakthroughs and allowed scientists to look into the universe’s most distant depths – to analyze the atmosphere of the exoplanet.

The researchers concluded that the exoplanet is roughly 1.7 times the size of Earth and vast portion of its mass – between 10 and 20 percent – could be water.

They found that the nearby planet – which lies in a “Goldilocks’ Zone” - could have an ocean of liquid water and even a nitrogen-rich atmosphere - just like Earth. This means it’s not too hot – or too cold – but just right for liquid water to potentially exist on its surface.

Lead author Charles Cadieux, from Université de Montréal, said: “Of all currently known temperate exoplanets, LHS 1140 b could well be our best bet to one day indirect-ly confirm liquid water on the surface of an alien world beyond our Solar System.”

“This would be a major milestone in the search for potentially habitable exoplanets.”

Analysis suggested that the exoplanet was significantly less massive than an object of its size should be.

This left researchers with two options: either LHS 1140 was a “mini-Neptune type ex-oplanet” (a small gas giant with a thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere) or a “super-Earth” (a rocky planet larger than Earth).

Their analysis found that as it has an Earth-like atmosphere, it is likely to be a snowball planet with a bull’s-eye ocean about 4,000 kilometers in diameter.

“(This is) equivalent to half the surface area of the Atlantic Ocean,” the university statement said. “The surface temperature at the center of this alien ocean could even be a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius.”

While it is still only a tentative result, the presence of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere on LHS 1140 b would suggest the planet has retained a substantial atmosphere, creating conditions that might support liquid water. If this result is confirmed, LHS 1140 b would be the first temperate planet to show evidence of a secondary atmosphere formed after the planet’s initial formation.

“This planet provides a unique opportunity to study a world that could support life, giv-en its position in the habitable zone and the likelihood of having an atmosphere that can retain heat and support a stable climate,” the university statement said.

The study is set to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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