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A team of Belgian scientists using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope have recently discovered a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, roughly forty light years from Earth. Three of the planets are in the star’s habitable zone, the area around the star most likely to have liquid water on their surfaces and therefore also the most likely to host life. This incredible discovery comes at a time when several exoplanets have now been discovered, some very close to Earth, which could play host to life. This has led to speculations about the abundance of life in the galaxy and the rest of the universe and brings us one step closer to answering the question “are we alone?”

The system, known as TRAPPIST-1, takes its name from the Transiting Planets and  part of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. These results were first announced in May 2016. However, using the Spitzer space telescope researchers could make more precise measurements to determine their densities. The results of this yielded the conclusion that the planets were most likely to be rocky, like the Earth, and were orbiting at distances close enough to host liquid water on their surfaces.

The planets orbit TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star, a type of star which, along with red giants, are far more prevalent in our galaxies than stars like our sun. The positive upshot of this is that researchers can now widen the net in the search for habitable worlds outside of our solar system and leads to the tentative conclusion that life in the galaxy may indeed be quite prevalent if not abundant. It is still too soon to draw definite conclusions from these data about the possibility that they play host to life, for that we will have to wait for the launch of the James Webb space telescope scheduled for 2018.

There are another of other limiting factors to consider in the question as to whether or not they host life, such as the distance that they orbit. All of the TRAPPIST planets orbit at distances closer to their star than Mercury is from our sun, this means that they could be tidally-locked, that they do not rotate and that it is permanently either day or night on one side of the planet and not the other. The problem this creates for life are various, it could produce very adverse weather conditions; also whether or not it’s possible for life to thrive under these conditions is not very well understood. However, there have been some examples of extremophile bacteria being discovered on earth, and this could lead to further speculations about the types of life that could potentially exist outside our solar system.

In 2016 the team operating the Hubble space telescope monitored the planets to look for signs of ‘puffy’ hydrogen rich atmospheres which would indicate that they could be gaseous planets. The fact they didn’t find any such evidence bolsters the conclusion that these planets are indeed rocky worlds like our own. Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer science centre, says that these results are the most fascinating in fourteen years of operations.
And, on a lighter note, NASA recently launched a campaign on twitter to name the new planets. Naturally many of the suggestions were quite silly and one did include Spitzer. Whatever names these planets end up adopting it is clear that this discovery represents a great leap forward in our understanding of planets beyond our solar system, the next step is to take a closer look at their atmospheres.

A team of Belgian scientists using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope have recently discovered a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, roughly forty light years from Earth. Three of the planets are in the star’s habitable zone, the area around the star most likely to have liquid water on their surfaces and therefore also the most likely to host life. This incredible discovery comes at a time when several exoplanets have now been discovered, some very close to Earth, which could play host to life. This has led to speculations about the abundance of life in the galaxy and the rest of the universe and brings us one step closer to answering the question “are we alone?”

The system, known as TRAPPIST-1, takes its name from the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, part of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. These results were first announced in May 2016. However, using the Spitzer space telescope researchers could make more precise measurements to determine their densities. The results of this yielded the conclusion that the planets were most likely to be rocky, like the Earth, and were orbiting at distances close enough to host liquid water on their surfaces.

The planets orbit TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star, a type of star which, along with red giants, are far more prevalent in our galaxies than stars like our sun. The positive upshot of this is that researchers can now widen the net in the search for habitable worlds outside of our solar system and leads to the tentative conclusion that life in the galaxy may indeed be quite prevalent if not abundant. It is still too soon to draw definite conclusions from these data about the possibility that they play host to life, for that we will have to wait for the launch of the James Webb space telescope scheduled for 2018.

There are another of other limiting factors to consider in the question as to whether or not they host life, such as the distance that they orbit. All of the TRAPPIST planets orbit at distances closer to their star than Mercury is from our sun, this means that they could be tidally-locked, that they do not rotate and that it is permanently either day or night on one side of the planet and not the other. The problem this creates for life are various, it could produce very adverse weather conditions; also whether or not it’s possible for life to thrive under these conditions is not very well understood. However, there have been some examples of extremophile bacteria being discovered on earth, and this could lead to further speculations about the types of life that could potentially exist outside our solar system.

In 2016 the team operating the Hubble space telescope monitored the planets to look for signs of ‘puffy’ hydrogen rich atmospheres which would indicate that they could be gaseous planets. The fact they didn’t find any such evidence bolsters the conclusion that these planets are indeed rocky worlds like our own. Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer science centre, says that these results are the most fascinating in fourteen years of operations.
And, on a lighter note, NASA recently launched a campaign on twitter to name the new planets. Naturally many of the suggestions were quite silly and one did include Planety McPlanetface. Whatever names these planets end up adopting it is clear that this discovery represents a great leap forward in our understanding of planets beyond our solar system, the next step is to take a closer look at their atmospheres.

By Marcela Usmari