NASA finds new system of exoplanets

This dwarf star is ultra-cool (Image source: Hubble ESA).

by Josh Green

This year certainly has been quite turbulent and has already proven to be a year with many twists and turns. Some of us are looking to 2017 as a year of change and exciting prospects and some of us are looking for silver linings in an otherwise gloomy climate. Regardless of your political leanings, one thing that tends to unite us is new discoveries. The discovery of the exoplanets around the star TRAPPIST-1 (named after the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope that found it) in February this year captured our imaginations in ways related to that of the original moon landings and that of the CURIOSITY Mars rover. But why should we care about these exoplanets and what does it mean?

First off, explaining what exoplanets are would be a very good step! Simply an exoplanet is a planet that does not revolve around our own sun. The reason why do we get excited about finding them however is a bit more specific. Generally speaking, around any star there is a place in which life is more likely to be. This region is called the Habitable zone or the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. This zone is where conditions are ‘just right’ for there to be water-based oceans which means the planet has just the right amount of solar energy hitting it. This is exciting for two reasons as exoplanets not only become areas in which other life could be found but also where human life could be supported in the future.

So what’s so great about the TRAPPIST-1 system? The system itself is 40 light years away from our solar system and was discovered by a joint team of NASA and a Belgian-led research team. What is also very interesting about this system is that the planets orbit so close to the dwarf star that, by comparison, all seven of the exoplanets would orbit closer to our sun than Mercury does. Out of the seven planets that orbit the newly found ultra-cool dwarf star three of them are right in the middle of this ‘Goldilocks’ zone. Even with these planets being close to the star it is important to remember that the star itself is a very cool star which makes the habitable zone to occur much closer to a sun than usual.

This system stands out because of how many planets there are like our own planet, Earth. Researching these planets much more extensively will potentially be able to answer questions scientists and indeed, all of us, about the origins of life. Further tests of course need to go ahead such as atmospheric analysis to try and find key indicators of life. If life is not present on these planets then researchers could look into why and, perhaps, lead to a fundamental change of what we look for as habitable planets. However, one can imagine that, if we found life on another planet not only will this encapsulate all of our desire for discovery but will also shake our fundamental foundations; our perception of ourselves not being alone in the Universe.

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