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Another nearby planet may be right for life

M. Weiss Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/AP

This artist’s rendering provided by M. Weiss Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows newly discovered rocky exoplanet LHS 1140b, left.

The Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) — Astronomers have found yet another planet that seems to have just the right Goldilocks combination for life: Not so hot and not so cold. It’s not so far away, either.

This new, big, dense planet is rocky, like Earth, and has the right temperatures for water, putting it in the habitable zone for life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It’s the fifth such life-possible planet outside our solar system revealed in less than a year, but still relatively nearby Earth. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

“It is astonishing to live in a time when discovery of potentially habitable worlds is not only commonplace but proliferating,” said MIT astronomer Sara Seager, who wasn’t part of the study.

The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995, but thanks to new techniques and especially the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler telescope, the number of them has exploded in recent years. Astronomers have now identified 52 potentially habitable planets and more than 3,600 planets outside our solar system.

The latest discovery, called LHS 1140b, regularly passes in front of its star, allowing astronomers to measure its size and mass. That makes astronomers more confident that this one is rocky, compared to other recent discoveries.

In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet’s path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a coauthor of the study. If scientists see both oxygen and some carbon in an atmosphere, that’s a promising sign that something could be living.

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