NASA Announces Discovery of New Solar System Possibly Capable of Supporting Life

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By on February 23, 2017 in Agency News with 0 Comments

NASA has announced the discovery of a new solar system containing seven Earth-sized planets orbiting around a single star, all of which appear to be capable of containing liquid water, the key to supporting life as we know it.

The discovery sets the record for the largest number of potentially habitable planets around a single star in a solar system outside of our own.

Three of the planets appear more likely than the others to contain water. They orbit in the “habitable zone,” the area that is the right distance from the star to be the most likely to have the necessary conditions for containing liquid water.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile.

In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces.

The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

Unlike our sun, the star in the TRAPPIST-1 system is cool enough that liquid water could be present on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than what we find in our solar system.

All seven of the planets are closer in their orbit to their host start than Mercury is to our sun, and the planets are very close to one another. This means that if a person was were standing on the surface of one of the planets, he could potentially see geological features or clouds of native worlds which would sometimes appear to be larger than the moon in our Earth’s sky.

The image below is an artist’s rendition of what this scene on the surface of one of the planets might look like:

Artist's rendition of what the view of the sky might look like from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system

“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 the agency’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.”

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Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.

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