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Aussie amateur astronomer helps discover new “super-Earth”

With the help of an amateur Aussie astronomer, scientists have discovered a planet circling a nearby star and believe it is a strong candidate for harbouring life.

The new planet, named LHS 1140b, is 39 light years away and receives enough starlight to allow for life-giving water according to a study published today in Nature.

Located in the constellation Cetus, LHS 1140b is a red dwarf planet around 50 percent larger than Earth and six times as heavy.

The planet was first detected in September 2014, using a group of telescopes in southern Chile. As LHS 1140b passes in front of its host stars, astronomers noted a dimming effect and were able to discern the planets approximate size and mass.

To confirm the planet’s existence the team of astronomers used three professional telescopes and the help of an amateur in Perth, Australia.

The Australian reports that retired engineer TG Tan aided the other high-tech observatories by providing observations during poor weather conditions.

In true Aussie fashion, Tan played down his astronomy career, despite the fact that he has helped to discover 25 other planets.

“Observatory’s a bit of a grand name for it — it’s basically a plywood box around an off-the-shelf telescope,” he told The Australian. “I’ve been interested in the night sky since I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing as a kid.”

Tan said that he got into astronomy 17 years ago after buying a telescope at the Perth Royal Show. He uses mathematical modelling to boost his observing techniques and maintains that he was simply “in the right place at the right time” to observe LHS 1140b.

Aside from the possibility of water, another point in LHS 1140b’s favour is that its density suggests the surface may be rocky rather than gaseous.

“LHS 1140 b is the best candidate to look at for signs of life in the near future”, said study co-author David Charbonneau, a Harvard University astronomer who leads the global network of telescopes that first observed the planet.

The discovery of this new super-Earth comes hot on the heels of other recent astronomical breakthroughs.

Earlier this year, NASA announced the discovery of no less than seven Earth-sized planets circling a star called TRAPPIST-1. And last week, the space agency revealed that Jupiter’s moon Enceladus may also have the prerequisites necessary to host life.

With Earth Day fast approaching, it’s once again time for us to take stock of how we are treating our planet.

The short answer is “not good”.

Finding these new Earths is all very well but it’s also becoming critical that we focus on looking after the most super-Earth of all – ours.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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