planet surface TRAPPIST
February 22, 2017

NASA announces discovery of seven habitable exoplanets around one star

NASA recently unveiled they've discovered a group of seven exoplanets orbiting a single star just 39 light years away from Earth. Each planet is rocky, warm, and could contain liquid water-- making them great candidates in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

This finding, reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday, is the first time scientists have discovered this many potentially habitable planets orbiting a star. Researchers say this system takes the top spot in the list of places where we might find life in the universe.

“To have this system of seven is really incredible. You can imagine how many nearby stars might harbor lots and lots of planets.”” says Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Making an Amazing Discovery

The planetary system was named TRAPPIST-1 after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile.

trappist planets space exoplanets

The seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system

Each of the seven planets could contain liquid water, with three having a higher chance than the others due to their distance from their host star.

Analyzing their density leads scientists to believe that these planets are rocky. The combination of their size, distance from their star, the likelihood of surface water, and rocky composition make them an amazing candidate for extraterrestrial life.

“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 of 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.”

Further Study Still Required

These planets are great candidates for further inquiry, but scientists still have a lot of studying to do.

While it's possible that these planets contain liquid water, further study is needed to reveal if liquid water actually exists in the system.

The TRAPPIST-1 star is classified as an ultra-cool dwarf, and these planets orbit extremely closely. Each of the TRAPPIST-1 stars orbits closer to their host star than Mercury to our sun. This brings concerns about the levels of radiation these planets receive-- it's possible that their star's radiation stripped them of their atmospheres, killing the chances of life taking hold.

NASA claims that it's possible the planets are tidally locked, meaning that the same side always faces their star. If this is the case, each side would be locked in perpetual day or night. Weather patterns would be very different from those on Earth, and this could impact the viability of life in the system.

Plan to hear more about these planets in the coming months, as further study is underway. We're excited.

We're excited.

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Image: An artists's interpretation of what it could look like on the surface of one of these planets

Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech