Early Wednesday afternoon, NASA announced a solar system containing seven Earth-like planets orbiting a single star, all of which may contain liquid water.
The planets all orbit very closely to a small, ultra-cool dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1, located 39 light years (235 trillion miles) away from Earth.
“The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system,” NASA said.
“All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone,” NASA said.
The discovery of these planets could be a huge step forward in answering the question ‘are humans alone in the universe since one or more of these planets could be home to life outside of our 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.”
While the TRAPPIST-1 system is relatively close to Earth from a cosmic standpoint, it would take human-built spacecraft many lifetimes to reach the system with current technology.
New Horizons, the spacecraft famous for visiting Pluto, is the fastest spacecraft ever launched by humans traveling at a speed of 36,373 mph. However, at this speed it would take over 800,000 years to reach TRAPPIST-1.
Astronomers will continue to study the TRAPPIST-1 system in the coming years and will conduct follow-up studies once NASA’s James Webb Telescope is launched and is fully opperational.
The James Webb Telescope is NASA’s next-generation space telescope that will be far more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope and is currently scheduled to launch in 2018.
“With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets' temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.”