On top of that, "statistical results suggest that the nearest transiting Earth-sized planet in the liquid-water, habitable zone of an M dwarf star is probably around 10.5 parsecs [or 34 light-years] away".
In a paper detailing the discovery, the researchers also say they believe the planet has an atmosphere, adding that both star LHS 1140 and planet LHS 1140b are so close to Earth that "telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future". Its star emits less radiation than many other red dwarfs, making it more likely to have preserved an atmosphere.
This new big planet is rocky, like Earth.
Scientists have been on the hunt for a kind of "Goldilocks" planet: a body that's small enough to be rocky and not gaseous, far (but not too far) enough from its star to hold liquid water, and bearing an atmosphere that could protect any possible life present.
"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 fact that the planet is rocky and in its star's habitable zone also raises its intrigue, because we may now have a planet suitable for the search for life as well".
The newly discovered solar system, which is the closest to have been found to Earth, piqued the interest of alien hunters as three of its planets fall into the star's habitable zone.
The initial discovery was made using the MEarth facility, which detected the tell-tale dip in light from LHS 1140 as LHS 1140b passed between the surface of the star and the observatory. The exoplanet is in the Cetus constellation, which is relatively close at just 40 light years away.
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In 2015, Dittman was going over some observation data of small red stars collected by two robotically controlled observatories, called the MEarth Project, when he spotted something promising. That's because they're the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from. "We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like".
There are also lessons to glean from, and apply to, the TRAPPIST-1 system whose discovery was announced in February this year. "Once the star had calmed down a bit, the magma would cool and start to release its water and other gases, forming the planet's atmosphere".
While these planets are 40 lightyears away, LHS 1140b is a negligible one lightyear closer. If either of those telescopes can't quite suss it out, future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope might make it easier.
LHS 1140b is a great world to study also because of the star it orbits: a red dwarf - a cool star that's less than one-third the size of our Sun. LHS 1140b is circling a red dwarf star, which emits less heat and light than the Sun.
Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Observatory of the Sciences of the Universe in Grenoble, France, said LHS 1140b now "joins Trappist-1 at the head of the rankings".
A planet's atmosphere is what we need to be studying the most if/when we're looking for signs of life. They want to confirm the existence of the planet's atmosphere and find out if it has molecular oxygen or water, and if it's similar to Earth.
"We don't have atmospheric measurements right now, but the star behaves nicely so that it's not ruling out anything", says Dittman. Once it's completed, JWT will be the most powerful space-based telescope ever deployed - it will be used to peer into the atmospheres of all of these planets and more. "We've been delighted to hear about the discovery of LHS by our colleagues from Harvard", he said.