One Step Closer to Life Beyond Earth

Image Credit: Daniel Olah on Unsplash

Laura Kenny investigates NASA’s breakthrough discovery of a new rocky Super-Earth in a habitable zone, demonstrating the possibility of life beyond Earth.

NASA’s discovery of a new rocky Super-Earth in a habitable zone has raised profound questions about the potential of life beyond planet Earth. The breakthrough sighting was made by a team of international scientists at NASA, led by astrophysicist Laetitia Delrez at the University of Liège, Belgium. NASA’s Exoplanet Archive presented a compelling analysis of the new rocky world, revealing potential clues about other planets that could be hundreds of light years away.

The Super-Planet, LP 890-9 c, was discovered accidentally during follow-up observations of its sister planet, LP 890-9b, and is approximately 40% larger than planet Earth. Both planets are classified as exoplanets, meaning they exist within new universal territories and are up to 75% larger than Earth. These extra-terrestrial domains are occasionally found within habitable zones, which are defined as the distance from a star at which liquid water could exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Analysis of the outer planet, LP 890-9 c, revealed that its orbit lies in a habitable zone where its surface is just the right temperature for liquid water to exist. This finding presents a significant breakthrough for NASA because it implies that planets beyond Earth have the potential to harbor life. The newfound planet is believed to be one of the most promising exoplanets discovered in a habitable zone and is undergoing further analysis by the authors of the study.

The inner planet, LP 890-9b, was identified using a Satellite called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The SPECULOOS, a ground-based telescope, revealed the rocky Super-Earth during follow-up observations. This analytical combination used an approach known as the Transit method to make the discovery possible. The telescopes assessed the amount of starlight absorbed by the planet’s atmosphere and examined the chemical composition of potential elements such as methane, carbon dioxide and oxygen. The continued use of the transit method will yield further clues to the chemical composition of the Super-Earth’s atmosphere and make previously unthinkable discoveries possible.

This discovery is astonishing because it raises crucial questions about whether there is life beyond planet Earth. The Harvard & Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics have expanded this potential, proposing further examination of the starlight filtered through the orbiting exoplanet’s atmosphere. In addition, the James Webb Space Telescope has begun analyzing the gasses in its atmosphere, which will help determine whether the newly discovered exoplanet can host life. Studying the presence of ultraviolet light is also critical because it forms necessary prebiotic molecules that enable life to exist. This study could ultimately reveal findings which argue in favor of extra-terrestrial life beyond Earth and present the possibility of other worlds like our own existing thousands of light years away.

The ultimate goal of NASA’s Exoplanet Programme is to find unmistakable current signs of life. Discoveries such as the Super Earth uncovered as part of this programme will continue to contextualise humanity’s place in the universe. Exploring exoplanets in habitable zones will also challenge ideas about how life came about and potentially reveal clues about our future. These findings could even answer questions we have pondered upon since the dawn of humanity,  forever altering the meaning of life as we know it.