Another day, another NASA discovery, with the agency announcing that their Spitzer Space Telescope has found seven Earth-sized planets orbiting around a single star, with several fixed firmly within the habitable zone. Their solar system, named TRAPPIST-1 is quite similar to ours, although the star and planets are all smaller compared to our own. This latest find represents one of NASA’s biggest space discoveries in recent history, up until now, not that many habitable-zone planets had been found to be orbiting a single star.
Understandably, NASA scientists are incredibly excited at the prospect of future advancements in the agency’s ongoing mission to find habitable planets capable of sustaining life, something NASA’s associate administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen, was keen to explore:
“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. 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.”
So far, scientists have been able to determine that at least six of the seven planets are rocky, with further observations set to help distinguish if those particular planets have any liquid water on their surface, if any at all. The seventh planet is believed to be an ice planet, but additional research will help conclude more about it. It seems that the planets do not have a gravitational spin, meaning that the same side of the planet is always facing the star, suggesting that they have weather patterns that could be completely different to Earth’s.
Additionally, the proximity of all the planets along with their orbit also mean that you could see them as distinctly as the moon from the surface of any of the planets. Scientists theorize that they would be so close you could determine distinct geographical features. The Spitzer will get some help from the Hubble and Kepler telescopes, which are expected to help unveil more about the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, but NASA is anxiously awaiting the launch of their newest state of the art telescope, the James Webb Telescope.
The latter, is due to be launched in 2018, and will boast some never before seen sensitivity, which will help scientists find out the chemical fingerprint and climatic properties of distant planets. This would enable NASA to know the levels of water, methane, oxygen, ozone on the habitable-zone planets, along with other components integral to life, such as temperature and surface pressure.