After NASA teased us by announcing a news conference to reveal a major discovery outside of our solar system, the agency delivered on their promise today by revealing a discovery that has a lot of people excited about the future prospects for finding alien life.
At 1pm today, NASA announced they have found seven (yes, SEVEN) Earth-sized planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a single star located some 39 light years from Earth. Those seven exoplanets represent the largest number of Earth-like planetary bodies ever to be discovered orbiting a single star, but that’s not even the most exciting part of this huge announcement. Of those seven planets, six of them are believed to be rocky planets with a similar mass to Earth. Most importantly though, three are thought to possess conditions that could allow for the presence of liquid water, something that is key to the existence of life as we know it.
“The planets are all close to each other and very close to the star, which is very reminiscent of the moons around Jupiter,” said lead author Michaël Gillon, from Belgium’s University of Liège.
“Still, the star is so small and cold that the seven planets are temperate, which means that they could have some liquid water – and maybe life, by extension – on the surface.”
The findings were made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and the team behind the project are, understandably, overjoyed with the record haul of Earth-like exoplanet discoveries.
“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”
So, what next? Well, as Carey says, it’s now time to start getting a better understanding of what the environment is like on these planets. The TRAPPIST-1 planets have now shot themselves up to the top of the list when it comes to candidates for studying exoplanet atmospheres. But, more so, the fact that there are so many potentially habitable planets in such close proximity to another, the TRAPPIST-1 system might just have become a new target for a more up-close-and-personal form of study.
While we are some time away from being able to send a spacecraft on an interstellar voyage to a potentially habitable system (Voyager was launched in the 70’s and has only recently left out solar system), Proxima Centauri-b had previously been tipped as the most likely destination for such a journey thanks to its relatively close distance (4.4 light years) to Earth. However, at 39 light years away (not too far away in the grand scheme of things) and with a much higher chance of answering the age old question of ‘Are we alone’, there’s a good chance that we might, someday, be sending something to investigate TRAPPIST-1 more closely.
In the near term, however, the James Webb Telescope will likely be able to hugely increase our understanding of these exoplanets. When it launches in 2018, NASA’s most powerful space telescope will be able to peer into the TRAPPIST-1 system and take atmospheric readings, looking for various gases and even biosignatures.
Until then, you can dream about what a pleasure voyage to TRAPPIST-1 might look like with this new NASA poster.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech