Did Hubble Find Earth 2.0? Atmospheric Study Of Exoplanets Reveals Terrestrial Worlds

Anya Wassenberg

Did Hubble just find Earth 2 and 3? NASA researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope to analyze the atmosphere of exoplanets outside our solar system for the first time with interesting results.

Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a team of researchers who used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to observe the planets using infrared light that can view visible light blocked by interstellar dust. Their findings were published July 20 in Nature Magazine.

According to a NASA release, Hubble's camera was used to observe two exoplanets called TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c. The exoplanets are orbiting a red dwarf star, dubbed TRAPPIST-1, that is located in the constellation Aquarius. The red dwarf star is thought to be at least 500-million-years-old and the exoplanets were discovered late last year by the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) robotic telescope operated by the European Space Agency or ESA in Chile.

A red dwarf star is nearing the end of its life cycle and at this stage, is known as an ultra-cool red dwarf star. TRAPPIST was set up as an innovative ground-based project designed specifically to search for such ultracool dwarf stars, and finding Earth 2, or Earth-like exoplanets, is their ultimate goal. Researchers across the globe have teamed up under the umbrella of SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-cool Stars) with plans to build four more, larger versions of TRAPPIST to find the brightest ultra-cool dwarfs and, hopefully, the terrestrial planets orbiting them.

TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c are located approximately 40 light-years away in outer space. Hubble's analysis comes from observing the two exoplanets crossing the face of the red dwarf star in close proximity to each other, an event that happens about every two years. What Hubble observed was that these two exoplanets did not display the kind of puffy atmospheric cloud common to gaseous planets, but rather a profile that would tend to indicate a compact atmosphere like that of our Earth.

"These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds that astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life."

Closing in on Earth 2.0, scientists hope that initial scans by the Hubble Telescope will serve as a kind of pre-screening to allow for a more detailed atmospheric analysis of exoplanets by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in October 2018.

[Image via NASA]