By CAMERON KROETZ
On Wednesday 22 Feb. NASA made the announcement that their Spitzer Space Telescope had discovered seven Earth-sized planets in orbit around the star Trappist-1, 40 light years away from Earth; the report was authored by Michaël Gillon, from Belgium’s University of Liège. Gillon wrote of how the seven planets may be similar to Earth saying that “the star is so small and cold that the seven planets are temperate, which means that they could have some liquid water – and maybe life, by extension – on the surface.”
The discovery of these exoplanets, a term given to any planet not in our solar system, helps reinforce the idea that Earth is not necessarily the only planet that may harbor life in the Universe. Planets that orbit low-mass stars such as Trappist-1 are subject to large amounts of solar radiation in the form of solar flares due to their close proximity to their star, possibly limiting biological activity on planetary sources. The habitable zone for low-mass stars is also considerably close to the star itself causing the planets to stay with one side eternally facing the sun and another side that is always in the dark, a factor that may or may not affect possible life on the planet. These factors make many scientists warn against automatically thinking that there is biological activity on distant worlds.
NASA is planning on launching a new satellite that will help discover and study more of these exoplanets. The new telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2018. Its state of the art sensors will be able to detect chemicals that make up the atmospheres of these planets and the surface temperatures and pressures, fundamental factors in determining whether a planet is habitable or not.
Discoveries such as these planets orbiting Trappist-1 obviously excite the scientific world. NASA is planning on continuing its study of other star systems in its quest for habitable planets. One can follow any further developments in space exploration on www.nasa.gov.