In a remarkable discovery, researchers have found a new exoplanet 39 light-years away that shows promise for life beyond our solar system.
Jason Dittmann, lead author of the paper in Nature and an inaugural 51 Pegasi b Fellow, calls the discovery “the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the last decade.” The new rocky exoplanet, known as LHS 1140b, was first spotted using the transit detection method, which measures tiny variations of a star’s brightness when a planet passes in front of it.
LHS 1140b is an exciting discovery because the planet lies within the habitable zone of an M-dwarf star where temperatures are conducive to liquid water, a prerequisite for life on Earth. The research team from the MEarth Project, a robotic observatory, had initially overlooked the subtle signals of this planet’s presence, but Dittmann developed and applied a novel machine learning based algorithm to extract and unveil the transit signal of planet LHS 1140b. Dittmann and his research team then used the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS instrument to confirm LHS 1140b’s orbital period, mass, and density.
LHS 1140b will be a prime target for additional follow up by next generation, extremely large ground-based and space-based telescopes to further probe and characterize its atmosphere and determine if LHS 1140b has the potential to harbor life.
Dittmann has spent much of his career working to understand the nearest stars and accelerate our ability to detect new worlds. He obtained a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Harvard University in 2016, and will continue his research during his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. Learn more about his work and research here.
The Heising-Simons Foundation’s 51 Pegasi b Fellowship provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy. Learn more about the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship here.