Astronomers have made a broken ground in the search for life outside our solar system with the discovery of a staggering seven earth-sized worlds.
Located in an orbit around a nearby star, astronomers believe at least three of them may be habitable – something they will be able to confirm definitively within a decade.
The system surrounds a star called TRAPPIST-1, a small ultra-cool dwarf star 40 light-years away that’s about 8 percent the mass of our Sun and 11 percent its radius.
Last year, it was revealed that three potentially rocky worlds orbited this star, and now this new study has found four more.
Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium, led the discourse on the findings that was published today in Nature, where NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and a variety of ground-based telescopes, including TRAPPIST-South in Chile was used for their discovery.
What makes this discovery so monumental is that it sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it.
“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“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 Spitzer is just one telescope that once coupled with the Hubble and Kepler that will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2018.
Being able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere are on the agenda as well as analyzing planets’ temperatures and surface pressures.
“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.”
Often referred to as the next frontier, it appears that with more information we receive, the more we’ll truly start to understand what life on other habitable planets could look like.