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NASA Discovers Potentially Habitable ‘Sister Solar System TRAPPIST-1’ With Seven Earths

First Posted: Feb 24, 2017 02:47 AM EST
TRAPPIST-1
The seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system.
(Photo : NASA Spitzer/YouTube screenshot)

NASA has revealed the existence of a sister solar system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star in the exoplanet system TRAPPIST-1. The discovery, made with the Spitzer Space Telescope, sets a new record for finding the highest number of habitable zone planets around a single star, after our very own Solar System.

According to NASA, all of the seven planets orbiting the parent star in the TRAPPIST-1 system could have liquid water, under the right atmospheric conditions. However, the chances of such an occurrence is highest with three, of the seven, planets that are actually located in the parent star’s habitable zone, i.e., the region around the star where existing planets can have liquid water, which increases the possibility of them being able to host or support life.

“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 NASA’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.”

The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet system is located at an approximate distance of 40 lightyears or 235 trillion miles from Earth in the constellation Aquarius, making the recently discovered solar system relatively close to us. Incidentally, an exoplanet is a planet located outside our own Solar System that exists around the Sun.

TRAPPIST-1 is named after Chile’s Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), which was instrumental in discovering three of the seven planets in the system along with several other telescopes such as NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope among others.

According to Michael Gillon from Belgium’s University of Liege and study author of TRAPPIST, the seven worlds in the TRAPPIST-1 system are the first Earth-size planets that have been discovered orbiting this kind of star. The finding implies that the exoplanet system is also the best target to study the atmospheres of potentially Earth-size planets.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has started the screening of four of the worlds in the TRAPPIST-1 system. It includes the three planets inside the habitable zone. In addition, Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer telescopes will also help scientists plan for follow-up researchers using the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope by NASA, which is scheduled to be launched in 2018.

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