Earth-Size Planets Discovered
Could life be found on one of these planets?
February 23, 2017
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has found the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single ultra-cool dwarf star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water, which adds to the possibility there is some form of life there.
At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius.
In contrast to our sun, this star is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun.
The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth's sky.
The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.
Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching 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 temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.
This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
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