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This artist's concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star. (Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech)

'Jaw-Droppingly Exciting': Scientists Discover Seven Earth-Like Planets

The exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system could hold water, NASA says

Andrea Germanos

While the Trump administration continues to wage a war on science, NASA on Wednesday shared "remarkable" findings: seven Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of a single star "relatively close" to the planet we call home.

"This is an amazing discovery," said Yale University astronomy professor Deborah Fischer to MSNBC. "On a scale of one-to-ten, this is off the scale. This is jaw-droppingly exciting," she added.

Located in the constellation Aquarius and about 40 light-years away from Earth, these rocky exoplanets (so called because they're outside our solar system) could all potentially hold water. They are around the TRAPPIST-1 star, which is slightly larger than Jupiter. It's an "ultracool dwarf" star, which means, according to a NASA press statement, that it is "so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system."

Three of the exoplanets were discovered using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile in 2016, with the additional four being discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The findings were also laid out Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star," said Michaël Gillon, lead study author and astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium.

"This discovery," added Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., "could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life."

"Answering the question 'are we alone?' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal," Zurbuchen said.

The TRAPPIST-1 website offers more details on the newly discovered system, and NASA Spitzer has this new video about how it came together:

Furthering the public dissemination of the information, a group of NASA scientists and exoplanet experts took part Wednesday in a Reddit AMA, where they provided more details on the discovery and next steps.

"[T]o find, identify, and announce" an oxygen-rich atmosphere is hopefully just years away, said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT. Natalie Batalha, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center expected that "the surface gravity of most of these planets is similar to that on Earth," and said that being able to see things like potential vegetation or surface features like continents would require technology beyond that held by NASA's James Webb Telescope, which launches in 2018.

Still as NASA explains, it "will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets' temperatures and surface pressures–key factors in assessing their habitability."


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