Potentially habitable world just 48 light years away

Exoplanet LHS 1140 b

Temperate exoplanet LHS 1140 b may be a world completely covered in ice (left), similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa, or an icy world with a liquid substellar ocean and a cloudy atmosphere (center). LHS 1140 b is 1.7 times the size of Earth (right) and is the most promising exoplanet in the habitable zone found so far in the search for liquid water outside the solar system. Credit: Benoit Gougeon, Université de Montréal

A team of astronomers has made an exciting discovery about the temperate exoplanet LHS 1140 b: This could be a promising “super-Earth,” covered in ice or water.

LHS 1140 b, once thought to be a mini-Neptuneis now considered a possible super-Earth with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, as suggested by James Webb Space Telescope data. Located in a habitable zone, it may have favorable conditions for liquid water, making it an important focus for future astrobiological studies.

When it was first discovered, astronomers speculated that the exoplanet LHS 1140 b could be a mini-Neptune. This means that it would be an essentially gaseous planet, but very small in size compared to Neptune. However, after analyzing data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) collected in December 2023 — combined with previous data from other space telescopes such as Spitzer, Hubble, and TESS —scientists have come to a very different conclusion.

Located about 48 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, LHS 1140 b appears to be one of the most promising exoplanets in its star’s habitable zone, potentially harboring an atmosphere and even an ocean of liquid water. The results of this discovery by astronomers from the Université de Montréal are available on ArXiv and will soon be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The James Webb Space Telescope

As the most advanced space telescope ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope excels in the study of exoplanets. Its cutting-edge technology allows astronomers to probe the atmospheres of distant worlds, analyze their composition, and assess their potential to support life. Credit: Northrup Grumman

An exoplanet in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone

LHS 1140 b, an exoplanet orbiting a low-mass red dwarf star about one-fifth the size of the sun, has fascinated scientists because it is one of the closest exoplanets to our solar system that lies within its star’s habitable zone. Exoplanets found in this “Goldilocks zone” have temperatures that allow water to exist on them in liquid form — liquid water is a crucial element for life as we know it on Earth.

Earlier this year, researchers led by Charles Cadieux, a PhD candidate at UdeM’s Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx), under the supervision of Professor René Doyon, reported new mass and radius estimates for LHS 1140 b with exceptional accuracycomparable to that of the known planets TRAPPIST-1: 1.7 times the size of Earth and 5.6 times as massive.

Charles Cadieux

Charles Cadieux, a Ph.D. student at the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets and the Université de Montréal, is the lead author of the paper. Credit: Courtesy

One of the critical questions about LHS 1140 b has been whether it is a mini-Neptune-type exoplanet (a small gas giant with a thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere) or a super-Earth (a rocky planet larger than Earth). The latter scenario included the possibility of a so-called “Hycean world” with a global liquid ocean surrounded by a hydrogen-rich atmosphere that would show a clear atmospheric signal that could be detected with the powerful Webb telescope.

New insights from Webb data

Through a highly competitive process, the team of astronomers was awarded valuable “director’s discretionary time” (DDT) on Webb last December, during which two transits of LHS 1140 b were observed with the Canadian-built NIRISS (Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph) instrument. This DDT program is only the second devoted to the study of exoplanets in Webb’s nearly two years of operation, underscoring the importance and potential impact of these findings.

Analysis of these observations strongly ruled out the mini-Neptune scenario, with tantalizing evidence suggesting that exoplanet LHS 1140 b is a super-Earth that may even have a nitrogen-rich atmosphere. 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 original formation.

Estimates based on all the collected data reveal that LHS 1140 b is less dense than expected for a rocky planet with a composition similar to Earth, suggesting that 10 to 20 percent of its mass is water. This discovery suggests that LHS 1140 b is a fascinating waterworld, likely resembling a snowball or ice planet with a potential liquid ocean at the substellar point, the region of the planet’s surface that would always face the system’s host star due to the planet’s expected synchronous rotation (much like Earth’s Moon).

René Doyon

René Doyon. Photo: Amélie Philibert, University of Montreal

“Of all the currently known temperate exoplanets, LHS 1140 b may be our best chance to one day indirectly confirm liquid water on the surface of an alien world outside our solar system,” said Cadieux, lead author of the new study. “This would be a major milestone in the search for potentially habitable exoplanets.”

Possible presence of an atmosphere and an ocean

Although only preliminary, the presence of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere on LHS 1140 b would suggest that the planet has retained a substantial atmosphere, creating conditions that could support liquid water. This discovery favors the waterworld/snowball scenario as the most plausible.

Current models indicate that if LHS 1140 b has an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, it would be a snowball planet with a huge “bull’s-eye” ocean about 4,000 kilometers in diameter, which is half the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The surface temperature at the center of this strange ocean could even be a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius.

LHS 1140 b’s potential atmosphere and favorable conditions for liquid water make it an exceptional candidate for future habitability studies. This planet offers a unique opportunity to study a world that could support life, given its position in the habitable zone of its star and the likelihood that it has an atmosphere that can trap heat and support a stable climate.

Several years of observation ahead

To confirm the presence and composition of LHS 1140 b’s atmosphere and to distinguish between the snowball planet and bull’s-eye ocean planet scenarios, further observations are needed. The research team emphasized the need for additional transit and eclipse measurements with the Webb telescope, focusing on a specific signal that could reveal the presence of carbon dioxide. This feature is crucial for understanding the atmospheric composition and detecting potential greenhouse gases that could indicate habitable conditions on the exoplanet.

“Detecting an Earth-like atmosphere on a temperate planet pushes Webb’s capabilities to the limit — it’s doable; we just need a lot of observing time,” said Doyon, who is also the principal investigator for the NIRISS instrument. “The current indication of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere needs to be confirmed with more data. We need at least another year of observations to confirm that LHS 1140 b has an atmosphere, and probably two or three more years to detect carbon dioxide.” According to Doyon, the Webb telescope will likely have to observe this system for several years at every possible opportunity to determine whether LHS 1140 b has habitable surface conditions.

Given the limited visibility of LHS 1140 b with Webb—a maximum of eight visits per year are possible—astronomers will need several years of observations to detect carbon dioxide and confirm the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface.

Reference: “Transmission spectroscopy of the habitable zone exoplanet LHS 1140 b with JWST/NIRISS” by Charles Cadieux, René Doyon, Ryan J. MacDonald, Martin Turbet, Étienne Artigau, Olivia Lim, Michael Radica, Thomas J. Fauchez, Salma Salhi, Lisa Dang, Loïc Albert, Louis-Philippe Coulombe, Nicolas B. Cowan, David Lafrenière, Alexandrine L’Heureux, Caroline Piaulet, Björn Benneke, Ryan Cloutier, Benjamin Charnay, Neil J. Cook, Marylou Fournier-Tondreau, Mykhaylo Plotnykov, Diana Valencia, Accepted, The letters of the astrophysical journal.

Cadieux is a doctoral student at the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at the University of Montreal.

Other iREx researchers who contributed to this article are René Doyon (UdeM), Étienne Artigau (UdeM), Olivia Lim (UdeM), Michael Radica (UdeM), Salma Salhi (UdeM), Lisa Dang (UdeM), Loïc Albert (UdeM), Louis-Philippe Coulombe (UdeM), Nicolas Cowan (McGill), David Lafrenière (UdeM), Alexandrine L’Heureux (UdeM), Caroline Piaulet-Ghorayeb (UdeM), Björn Benneke (UdeM), Neil Cook (UdeM), and Marylou Fournier-Tondreau (UdeM and University of Oxford). There are also other staff members from the University of Michigan, the National Center for Scientific Research (France), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, American University, McGill University, McMaster University, and the University of Toronto. Cadieux and the UdeM team acknowledge the financial support of the Canadian Space Agency for this study.

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