On Wednesday, Feb. 22, as- tronomers from NASA discov- ered a nearby solar system with seven Earth-sized planets, with three orbiting around their par- ent star at similar proportions like Earth and the Sun.
The star named TRAPPIST-1 is located about 40 light years away, but with modern rocket technology, it would estimate about 11,250 years to travel there. However, for scientists, this is a close enough distance to study and observe since this specific group of planets may provide environments that can support life. As NASA chief scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen, explained at a news conference, “The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when.”
This solar system of planets that is beyond the Earth’s own system is among several thou- sands more planets that are be- ing discovered, called exoplan- ets. While researchers observe that the data from these planets still remains uncertain, the star TRAPPIST-1 is only as large as eight percent of the Sun’s size.
However, three planets re- main in the “habitable zone,” where their climates may be sus- tainable for liquid water. But just because they can sustain water, this does not guarantee that they do. Similarly, with Venus and Mars being in the “habit- able zone,” these newly discov- ered planets may not be any dif- ferent, possibly having similar characteristics, but not the right chemical elements for life.
Not only is the distance of these three planets similar to their sun as Earth is to ours, but six out of the seven planets also have similar characteristics of sizes and masses that show they are rocky. This is an important feature for life to exist since it supports an atmosphere thick enough for protection from extreme cold and hot tempera- tures, but it is also thin enough so rocky land can exist instead of being giant planets of gases.
Compared to Earth, research- ers believe that the surface on one of the planets receives 200 times less light than the amount that the Sun provides to Earth. However, the star would pro- vide just as much energy to keep the planet warm since they are located so close. Scientists also predict the views from standing on one of the planets would pro- vide picturesque scenery, since the other planets would appear as large, if not bigger, in the sky as the moon.
One scientist exoplanet ex- pert from NASA, Aki Roberge, explains that the science we know and study is only relative to Earth. The laws of biology, chemistry and even physics have a fixed existence on Earth, but exceptions occur outside the planet.
Earth-like planets are the only examples we can compare, understand and recognize be- cause Roberge further explains as “It’s not really that we think Earth-like life is the only life that can be out there. It’s just the only life we can detect.”
Looking ahead in the next year, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will launch to outer space, traveling one million miles from Earth. It will be able to view the deeper universe. This telescope will also inspect the exoplanets’ atmospheres for further study in search of water, chemical components and exis- tence of life.