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Webb: An exoplanet in the habitable zone with a possible nitrogen/CO2 atmosphere and water ocean

Using the Webb Space Telescope, astronomers have obtained new transiting spectroscopy of a “mini-Neptune-sized” exoplanet that circles in the habitable zone a red dwarf star about 48 light years away and have concluded that it appears to have a nitrogen/carbon dioxide atmosphere and even a water ocean.

While it is still only a tentative result, the presence of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere on LHS 1140 b would suggest the planet has retained a substantial atmosphere, creating conditions that might support liquid water. This discovery favors the water-world/snowball scenario as the most plausible.

Current models indicate that if LHS 1140 b has an Earth-like atmosphere, it would be a snowball planet with a vast “bull’s-eye” ocean measuring about 4,000 kilometers in diameter, equivalent to half the surface area of the Atlantic Ocean. The surface temperature at the centre of this alien ocean could even be a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius [68 degrees Fahrenheit]. [emphasis mine]

You can read the preprint of the paper here [pdf].

The highlighted phrase must be noted. These results contain a lot of uncertainties and assumptions. However, the data is tantalizing, to say the least, and justify more observations using Webb. The scientists argue in their paper that because there are only about eight transits of the exoplanet per year — requiring several years of observations to pin down this data more precisely — and because Webb has a limited life expectancy as an infrared observatory, this star should get observational priority.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.


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  • Max

    This is an exciting development.
    Nitrogen carbon and oxygen is the fundamental building blocks of life. The first step in terraforming a new planet.
    “LHS 1140 b, an exoplanet orbiting a low-mass red dwarf star roughly one-fifth the size of the Sun”

    To orbit a Sun one fifth the size of our Sun eight times a year would mean it has an orbit so close that it may pass through a considerable amount of that suns atmosphere. The Goldilocks zone of course means there’s enough light for photosynthesis. The planets surface heat is determined by the thickness of it’s atmosphere. The planets mass determines how much gravity, for instance Saturn is much larger than this planet but is a ball of fluff… If you could stand on the surface you would weigh 10% more than on earth which is doable. Unfortunately it’s thick atmosphere makes Saturn extremely hot.
    Need more data.

  • TallDave

    would guess waterworlds and dustworlds are probably far more common than those like ours with both deep oceans and exposed land

    but if they want to attract my interest they need to stop looking at red dwarfs

    even aside from the tidal locking in the “habitable” zone, red dwarfs are just too variable to sustain life for very long

    even among stars of its class our Sun is unusually quiet

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