NASAs break-through discovery hints that it is no longer a question of “if” there is something out there, but “when” we will find it…
Since the discovery that water once existed on Mars, it has been a popular thought that there could have been intelligent life on the planet. But the new discoveries of NASAs Spitzer Space Telescope have found the first cluster of potentially inhabitable planets around a star that is not our own. There are seven of the planets in total, and three of these are located in the area which is most likely to have conditions suitable for the occurrence of liquid water, although all seven have the potential to form water.
This sets a new record for the number of potentially life-yielding planets found outside of our own solar system and bunched around a single star. Thomas Zurbuchen, of NASAs Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said that this could well be “significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments” that could bring us closer to answering the burning question – “are we alone”?, which he described as a “top science priority”. He also added that “finding a second Earth is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.”
The newly discovered system is around 40 light-years from us here on Earth, making it relatively close in space-terms. Its home is the constellation of Aquarius. Planets that are not in our solar system are known as exoplanets, and this exoplanet system has been named TRAPPIST-1, after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. While there were already theories of three planets in the system, the existence of seven was published this week in Nature and were announced at a conference in Washington.
Further observations are needed to get a really good idea of the nature of the planets, including if they hold any surface water, however their densities mean that they are likely to have rocky surfaces. What is known for sure is that this is the first system of planets roughly similar in size to Earth that have the capability to hold water. As Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium notes, the system is “the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.” Who knows what we will discover there?