Discovery of Earth-like planets makes alien life in the Milky Way plausible

The discovery of five planets in a neighboring solar system was announced Wednesday by NASA in conjunction with the publication of an article in the science journal Nature, based on research conducted in Belgium with data gathered from the European Southern Observatory.

In May 2016, the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in northern Chile found three never before seen planets orbiting a star in the constellation Aquarius called TRAPPIST-1.  Observations by NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope later confirmed the existence of two of those planets, plus five additional worlds, three of which reside in the habitable zone where life could exist.

Designated as an ultra-cool dwarf, TRAPPIST-1, which resides approximately 40 light years or 235 trillion miles from Earth, has approximately 200 times less luminosity than our sun and is believed to emit a pinkish-red light.  Because of the star’s relatively low temperature, all of the newly discovered planets have tighter orbital paths than even Mercury.

(courtesy NASA via Space.com)

While at least three of the known planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 are believed to closely resemble Earth’s geological characteristics and have the potential to hold liquid water, they are also thought to be tidally fixed to their star. The possibility that these worlds are rotation-less means they likely have more extreme weather patterns, including stronger winds and a greater variance in surface temperatures.

One of the study’s authors, Amaury Triaud of the University of Cambridge, described what the night sky might look like from the surface of one of TRAPPIST-1’s planets, which orbit relatively close to each other.

“The spectacle would be beautiful because every now and then, you would see another planet, maybe about as big as twice the moon in [our] sky”, Triaud said.

Planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 (courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

According to NASA, the planets orbit in such tight patterns that one could see clouds and other surface details from neighboring worlds.

While much about the TRAPPIST-1 solar system is still to be learned, additional studies are being conducted, including NASA’s Kepler telescope K2 mission, which will hash out more of the planetary details before America’s space agency launches a new telescope in 2018.

The James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.8 billion project two-decades in the making, is scheduled for lift-off next year and will have the capability to more precisely answer many of the questions astronomers have about alien solar systems, such as planets’ atmospheric chemical compositions and surface pressures and temperatures.

 

[NASA.gov] [RT News] [Salon]