New Earth-sized planet covered in active volcanoes discovered by boffins

Scientists have discovered an Earth-sized planet that could be covered in active volcanoes.

The planet LP 791-18 d was found far beyond our solar system using data from Nasa's TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and the Spitzer Space Telescope before it was decommissioned in January 2020, as well as observatories on the ground.

It is thought the planet could see explosions as frequently as Jupiter's moon Io, which is more volcanically active than any other planet or moon in our solar system.

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"LP 791-18 d is tidally locked, which means the same side constantly faces its star," said Björn Benneke, a co-author of a paper published on the exoplanet in the scientific journal Nature.

"The day side would probably be too hot for liquid water to exist on the surface. But the amount of volcanic activity we suspect occurs all over the planet could sustain an atmosphere, which may allow water to condense on the night side."

LP 791-18 d orbits a small red dwarf star about 90 light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation Crater.

The team who discovered it estimates it's slightly larger and more massive than our planet.

Scientists were already aware of two more planets in the same system, called LP 791-18 b and c.

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LP 791-18 b is about 20% bigger than Earth, while the outer planet c is roughly two and a half times Earth's size and more than seven times its mass.

As the planets orbit their star, planets d and c pass very close to each other, with planet c producing a gravitational pull on the less massive planet d.

This means its orbit is elliptical and planet d is slightly deformed every time it goes around the star.

The deformations can create internal friction, which heats up the planet's interior and may create volcanic activity.

Planet d is also found on the inner edge of what is known as the habitable zone – the range of distances from a star where scientists estimate a planet could have water on its surface.

Scientists believe the planet could have an atmosphere, with temperatures potentially dropping low enough on the planet's night side for water to condense.

Planet c has already been approved to be studied by James Webb Space Telescope, and the team also reckons planet d could be a candidate for similar studies by the mission.

"A big question in astrobiology, the field that broadly studies the origins of life on Earth and beyond, is if tectonic or volcanic activity is necessary for life," said co-author Jessie Christiansen, a research scientist at Nasa's Exoplanet Science Institute.

"In addition to potentially providing an atmosphere, these processes could churn up materials that would otherwise sink down and get trapped in the crust, including those we think are important for life, like carbon."

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