Last Wednesday, Feb. 22, NASA announced their new discovery of a system of seven Earth-size planets around a single, ultra-cool red dwarf star. This system, TRAPPIST-1 (named after the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile), set a record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside of our solar system. NASA researchers claim that all seven of these planets may have liquid water – essential to life – due to their relative location to the star. Chances of liquid water are highest for three planets that lie in the habitable zone or the “Goldilocks zone.”
Although this news was published just last week, professors and NASA scientists filed a scientific journal back in November 2016. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST claimed they discovered three planets in the system. Several ground telescopes were used in verifying this claim. The Spitzer Space telescope then confirmed the existence of two of these planets while discovering five additional ones, increasing the number of planets to seven. With data from Spitzer, NASA calculated the sizes of each planet and the masses of six of them. Those calculations and further observations will help determine whether these planets contain water on their surfaces. Michael Gillon, lead author and investigator of the report at University of Liege, Belgium said that TRAPPIST-1 is “the best target yet for studying atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”
As of Feb. 22, the number of confirmed planets has risen to 3,453. With so many planets being discovered, scientists shift focus to planets that have the best chances of maintaining life: those in the Goldilocks zone. With this new discovery of seven exoplanets, scientists will determine whether there is liquid water on any of their surfaces and signs of life. Although the system is 40 light-years away, it would take millions of years to reach this system. TRAPPIST-1, however, is the best, and closest, search for life beyond our solar system yet. With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, scientists will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Additionally, it will analyze a planet’s temperatures and surface pressures – critical in determining each planet’s habitability.
TRAPPIST-1 is a monumental discovery that could lead to even more incredible ones. The search for life has been going on for decades, but as technology advances and new exoplanets are revealed, an answer may come soon. And even though none of us will be able to step foot on TRAPPIST-1’s planets in our lifetime, it is still extraordinary to imagine the possibilities of other worlds. British author Sir Arthur Charles Clarke once wrote “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Terrifying, true. But to think that there is any form of life outside of Earth keeps us in awe and we all hope to live during the day a discovery is made. Hopefully TRAPPIST-1 lives up to its potential.