Can life exist outside of Earth? NASA’s recent discovery makes the idea seem hopeful.
This illustration provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows an artist’s conception of what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about their diameters, masses and distances from the host star. The planets circle tightly around a dim dwarf star called Trappist-1, barely the size of Jupiter. Three are in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water and, possibly life, might exist. The others are right on the doorstep. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
Seven Earth-sized planets have been discovered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope earlier this week, setting a new record for the largest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system.
The seven planets orbit an ultra-cool dwarf star and are located in the Aquarius constellation. Since they are outside of our solar system, they are scientifically known as exoplanets. While all seven exoplanets are believed to contain liquid water, there are three that are considered in the habitable-zone and are most likely to be able to sustain life.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington said, “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question ‘are we alone?’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”
The system is called the TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. The exoplanet system is relatively close to us, only about 40 light-years (253 trillion miles) from Earth, making it possible for the planets to be studied in detail.
Scientist believe this could be a crucial step in discovering if we are alone in the universe or not.
Astronomer Amaury H. M. J. Triaud at the University of Cambridge England said:
“I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there. Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to that we have on Earth, then we will know.”
In May of 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST discovered three planets in the system. Then, assisted by several ground-based telescopes, Spitzer confirmed two of these planets and discovered five additional ones.
The new results were published on Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the journal Nature and were announced in Washington at NASA’s Headquarters in a news briefing.
Using the data provided by Spitzer, the team measured the sizes of the exoplanets to estimate the masses of six, allowing for the estimation of their densities.
The exoplanets are likely to be rock-based and further observations will help determine if they are rich in water or have liquid water on their surface. The seventh exoplanet has yet to be estimated and is believed to be icy, though further observations are needed for confirmation.
The principal investigator and lead author, Micheal Gillon, of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege in Belgium said, “The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star. It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”
If you would like additional information on NASA’s finding, you can visit: https://www.nasa.gov/
For more information about Spitzer, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer
For more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit: https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1
For more information on exoplanets, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/exoplanets