Super-Earth? Don't get your hopes up

No one should be getting their hopes up the latest discovery of an Earth-like planet means we're on the verge of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life.

LHS 1140b, 39 light years away, is a rocky planet that orbits its star - a red dwarf - at just the right distance for liquid water to form.

But don't expect us to find ET living there anytime soon, warns Kiwi space expert Matthew Pavletich. Even if there are aliens which call LHS 1140b home, it's just too far away.

"There will be no space probes from Earth visiting other star systems in the life of anybody hearing this," he told The AM Show on Friday.

Scientists have recently focused on trying to find life here in our own solar system, with the moons of Jupiter and Saturn looking increasingly likely to host the first life found outside of Earth.

But it won't be anything like we've seen in Star Trek or Hollywood blockbusters like Arrival or Independence Day - more like a microbe, if it exists at all.

Mr Pavletich says it's highly unlikely we'll find anything we can communicate with for hundreds of years.

"To talk to another civilisation many light years away, we could train our radio telescopes on this area and send messages to it, and the very earliest we'll get back a reply is 80 years. They'd have to be at roughly 1960s level of technology to have the proper radio equipment to talk to other civilisations."

And that's light-speed communications. Physically travelling somewhere isn't as easy as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise asking Geordi LaForge to engage the warp drive.

"Science fiction makes it quite sexy and quite easy to travel from one star system to another," says Mr Pavletich.

"I guarantee you, it would be one of the hardest things the human race would ever do to send an interstellar spacecraft out there. Even with our best technology we've got now, it would take 100,000 years to reach this place.

"Even if you could accelerate to half the speed of light, which is in the realms of possibility, it's still going to take you 100 years to get there."

Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise D (Paramount)
Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise D (Paramount)

If it was possible to travel to LHS 1140b at the speed of light, while the trip would be virtually instantaneous for those on board, any family and friends the crew left behind would age half a lifetime.

But that's not a problem any of us will have to deal with.

"It's hundreds of years from now before we even think of doing anything like that," says Mr Pavletich.

If the Star Trek timeline is anything to go by, humanity won't achieve light-speed travel until an alien civilisation finds us first - and even then, we'll be waiting until 2063.