Today, NASA announced the discovery of an entire solar system a mere 39 light-years away that is filled with planets that could potentially support life. The groundbreaking discovery was announced at a press conference earlier today and could bring humanity a step closer to discovering life on other planets.
According to the Independent, at least three of the seven Earth-sized planets discovered orbiting the star, TRAPPIST-1, are considered the “holy grail” for planet-hunting astronomers because of their potential for supporting life. Such planets are capable of having oceans and sit within the right temperature zone for life to flourish.
As a result of the announcement, people worldwide are excited about the possibility that life could exist on these distant planets. NASA is well aware that its discovery is a big one, according to a release about the new solar system on the agency’s website.
“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 for NASA’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.”
This discovery is the first of its kind. Never before have this many Earth-sized planets been found circling a single star. The star, TRAPPIST-1, sits in the Aquarius constellation, approximately 39 light-years from Earth. The solar system was discovered using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
Unlike Earth’s sun, TRAPPIST-1 is classified as an ultra-cool dwarf star. It is so cool that even planets in close proximity could potentially maintain the presence of water without it evaporating into the atmosphere. The planets are thought to possibly be tidally-locked to TRAPPIST-1, which means one side of the planets are always facing the star while the other sides are always facing away. All seven of the discovered planets are closer to TRAPPIST-1 than Mercury is to the sun.
Further studies of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system are already planned using the Spitzer telescope, which is an infrared telescope that follows the Earth as it orbits the sun. According to NASA’s official statement, in 2018 exploration of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system will continue using a more powerful telescope currently being built, the James Webb Space Telescope.
“With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere,” NASA said. “Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.”
On its website, NASA gives visitors the ability to virtually explore the TRAPPIST-1 system in 3-D for those who are intrigued by this exciting discovery.
Whether the discovery of this solar system leads to the discovery of life outside of Earth remains to be seen, but it is undoubtedly a major development in astronomy that very well may serve to greatly expand the knowledge we have of the universe in a variety of ways. Discoveries like this one of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system are the kinds of things many humans dream about as children as they look up at the stars and wonder what’s out there. Such discoveries renew that sense of wonder and excitement for many of us as we patiently wait for proof that life exists on planets other than our own.
[Featured Image by NASA]