JWST Spots Potentially Habitable Ice World in Nearby Star System

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on July 9, 2024 12:30
Jwst Spots Potentially Habitable Ice World In Nearby Star System

Astronomers have identified a temperate exoplanet, LHS 1140 b, as a promising super-Earth ice or water world. Using data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), this discovery marks a significant step in the search for potentially habitable exoplanets beyond our solar system.

Discovery of LHS 1140 b: A New Class of Habitable Exoplanet

Located about 48 light-years away in the constellation Cetus, LHS 1140 b orbits within the habitable zone of its red dwarf star. This region, often referred to as the "Goldilocks Zone," has conditions that could allow liquid water to exist. Initially, the planet was believed to be a mini-Neptune, a type of small gas giant with a thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere.

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However, recent JWST data suggests it is more likely a rocky or icy super-Earth. This reclassification significantly impacts our understanding of the planet's potential to support life. Ryan MacDonald, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of Michigan, remarked, "This is the first time we have ever seen a hint of an atmosphere on a habitable zone rocky or ice-rich exoplanet." The discovery underscores the importance of advanced telescopic technologies in identifying and studying distant worlds.

Atmospheric Characterization of LHS 1140 b

The JWST data, combined with observations from other space telescopes like Spitzer, Hubble, and TESS, indicates that LHS 1140 b might have a nitrogen-rich atmosphere similar to Earth's. This revelation has significant implications for our understanding of exoplanetary atmospheres and their potential to support life. "Detecting atmospheres on small, rocky worlds is a major goal for JWST, but these signals are much harder to see than for giant planet atmospheres," MacDonald added.

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The presence of an atmosphere is crucial for determining the habitability of an exoplanet, as it helps retain heat and sustain a stable climate. Estimates suggest that LHS 1140 b is less dense than expected for a purely rocky planet, implying that 10 to 20 percent of its mass could be composed of water. This points to the planet potentially being a snowball or ice world with a sub-surface ocean, possibly maintaining a liquid ocean at the substellar point due to tidal locking with its host star.

Temperate Exoplanet Lhs 1140 B May Be A World Completely Covered In Ice (left) Similar To Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Implications for Future Research and Exploration

The discovery of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere on LHS 1140 b makes it an exceptional candidate for further studies focused on habitability. This planet's unique characteristics, such as its potential to harbor a substantial atmosphere and a liquid water ocean, offer a rare opportunity to explore the conditions that might support life.

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MacDonald highlighted the importance of this finding, stating, "This is our first tantalizing glimpse of an atmosphere on a super Earth in the habitable zone. While we need more JWST observations to confirm the nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and to search for other gases, this is a very promising start." Future JWST observations will aim to confirm the presence of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and search for additional gases that could provide further insights into the planet's habitability.

The ongoing study of LHS 1140 b and other similar exoplanets will enhance our understanding of the diversity of planetary systems and the potential for life beyond Earth. This discovery not only advances our knowledge of exoplanets but also brings us closer to answering the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.

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By continuing to develop and utilize advanced observational technologies, scientists hope to uncover more about these distant worlds and their potential to host life, thereby expanding our horizons and deepening our appreciation for the complexity and diversity of the cosmos.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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