A record breaking number of new Earth-like planets orbiting around a single star in a nearby solar system have been discovered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In a press release on February 22, 2017, NASA has said that all these planets could have liquid water, with the highest probability for three planets that are in the habitable zone. These planets are located in the Aquarius constellation, which approximately 39 light-years away from us.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington said, “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life.”
All these planets orbit around an ultra-cool dwarf named the TRAPPIST-1 star, which might be only half a billion years old and is much cooler than the Sun.
NASA has precise measurements for the size of the planets and has estimated the mass and density for most of them. Based on this information, all the planets are likely to be rocky. The planets are orbiting very close to each other and to the TRAPPIST-1 star. Someone standing on the surface of one of the planets would likely be able to see geological features of the neighbouring planets, which would appear substantially larger than size of the moon as observed from Earth.
NASA has said that the planets might also be tidally locked to the TRAPPIST-1 star, so that the same side of the planet is always facing the star. This could result in strange weather patterns and temperature changes on the planet’s surface.
Three of these planets were first discovered in 2016 by The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope along with several other ground-based telescopes such as the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, recently confirmed the existence of all seven planets.
NASA is planning to conduct follow-up studies on this discovery by using their new James Webb Space Telescope that will be launched in 2018. The James Webb Space Telescope has the ability to detect the surface pressures and temperatures, as well as the other components of a planet’s atmosphere such as oxygen, water and ozone.
According to the press release, Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California said, “This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations. Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”
The results of the discovery have been recently published in the journal Nature.