NASA’s Major Discovery Sends Space Geeks Into A Frenzy

With the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a single star, astronomers may have found our best hope yet in answering one of science’s top questions.

TRAPPIST-1 Planets

An artist’s illustration of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, in their respective orbits. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

We’re used to hearing amazing discoveries from NASA, yet we still can’t help but get excited every time they make announcements. On Wedensday, they confirmed the discovery of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the same star — TRAPPIST-1, an ‘ultracool dwarf’ located around 40 light-years away. An ‘ultracool dwarf’ means that compared with our Sun, the energy it generates is far weaker and its surface temperatures are just under 4,400°Fahrenheit.

Aside from having sizes comparable with the Earth, the planets’ mass also suggest that they have a rocky surface rather than a gaseous surface like Jupiter’s, and possibly surface temperatures much like ours. The researchers also say that the planets which have been named TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g, and h — TRAPPIST-1b representing the planet closest to the red dwarf, with h being the most remote — might be ‘tidally locked’ to their host star, meaning, the same side of the planets is always facing the star — on one side, it is always daytime; on the other, it is perpetually night. If this will be proven true, then the planets may have weather patterns similar to ours. And it gets even better.

All seven planets are orbiting TRAPPIST-1 closer than Mercury’s orbit around our own Sun. They’re also located very close to each other, close enough that if someone was standing on the planet’s surface, he/she could probably see the features of a neighboring planet simply by gazing up. Most importantly, three of the planets are supposedly lying in the star’s habitable zone (also known as the ‘goldilocks zone‘) — the region around a star where it is hypothetically feasible for liquid water to exist. And where there’s water, especially if it turns out to be oceans of water, there’s a big possibility that there might be life.

It’s a pretty exciting discovery, to say the least, because according to lead study author Michael Gillon, this solar system doesn’t just have the most number of Earth-sized planets ever discovered. It also has the most number of planets that can possibly support liquid water.

While we know very little about the newly discovered planets at this time — they’re technically called ‘exoplanets’ because they’re outside our own Solar System — with the launching of the James Webb Telescope next year, we expect to find out more. And hopefully, the data will be sufficient to determine whether the planets are indeed capable of supporting life or not.

As Gillon said in a press release they issued: “The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star. It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

The discovery, which rightly so has sent space geeks into a frenzy, was announced during a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The study has also been published in the journal “Nature”.

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