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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby star – Includes video

The Guardian – Ian Sample/Science editor – Wednesday, 22 February 2017

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Photo: Nasa announces discovery of seven Earth-sized planets

A huddle of seven worlds, all close in size to Earth, and perhaps warm enough for water and the life it can sustain, has been spotted around a small, faint star in the constellation of Aquarius.

The discovery, which has thrilled astronomers, has raised hopes that the hunt for alien life beyond the solar system could start much sooner than previously thought, with the next generation of telescopes that are due to switch on in the next decade.

It is the first time that so many Earth-sized planets have been found in orbit around the same star, an unexpected haul that suggests the Milky Way may be teeming with worlds that, in size and firmness underfoot at least, resemble our own rocky home.

The planets closely circle a dwarf star named Trappist-1, which at 39 light years away makes the system a prime candidate to search for signs of life. Only marginally larger than Jupiter, the star shines with a feeble light about 2,000 times fainter than our sun.

“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,” said Michaël Gillon, an astrophysicist at the University of Liège in Belgium. Details of the work are reported in Nature.

A newly discovered solar system just 39 light years from earth contains planets which could contain liquid water
Trappist-1 is a system containing seven planets comparable to Earth. They orbit a small star called an utra-cool dwarf. The distance of the planets from the star means that liquid water could be found on their surfaces.

While the planets have Earth-like dimensions, their sizes ranging from 25% smaller to 10% larger, they could not be more different in other features. Most striking is how compact the planet’s orbits are. Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system, is six times farther from the sun than the outermost seventh planet is from Trappist-1.

Any life that gained a foothold and the capacity to look up would have a remarkable view from a Trappist-1 world. From the fifth planet, considered the most habitable, the salmon-pink star would loom 10 times larger than the sun in our sky. The other planets would soar overhead as their orbits required, appearing up to twice the size of the moon as seen from Earth. “It would be a beautiful show,” said Amaury Triaud at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University

The researchers hope to know whether there is life on the planets “within a decade,” Amaury added. “I think we’ve made a crucial step in finding out if there’s life out there,” he said. “If life managed to thrive and releases gases in a similar way as on Earth, we will know.”

Astronomers reported last year what looked like three planets in orbit around Trappist-1, a star they named after the Trappist robotic telescope in the Chilean desert that first caught sight of the alien worlds. The telescope did not see the planets directly, but recorded the shadows they cast as they crossed the face of the star.

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Photo: Any life that gained a foothold and the capacity to look up would have a remarkable view from a Trappist-1 world. From the fifth planet, considered the most habitable, the salmon-pink star would loom 10 times larger than the sun in our sky. Illustration: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

The discovery prompted more sustained observations from the ground and space. Nasa’s Spitzer space telescope peered at the star for 21 days and, with data from other observatories, revealed a total of seven planets circling Trappist-1. The size of each planet was deduced from the amount of starlight it blocked out, while the mass was estimated from the way it was pushed and pulled around by other planets in the system.

The planets are on such tight orbits that it takes between 1.5 and 20 days for them to whip around the star. At such proximity, most, if not all, will be “tidally locked”, meaning they show only one face to Trappist-1, just as one side of the moon always faces Earth. Some of the planets are thought to be the right temperature to host oceans of water, depending on the makeup of their atmospheres, but on others any hospitable regions may be confined to the bands that separate the light and dark sides of the planets.

Ignas Snellen, an astrophysicist at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study, said the findings show that Earth-like planets must be extremely common. “This is really something new,” he said. “When they started this search several years ago, I really thought it was a waste of time. I was very, very wrong.”

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Photo: The top row shows an artist’s conception of the seven planets of Trappist-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. The bottom row shows data about Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers are now focusing on whether the planets have atmospheres. If they do, they could reveal the first hints of life on the surfaces below. The Hubble telescope could detect methane and water in the alien air, but both can be produced without life. More complex and convincing molecular signatures might be spotted by Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch next year, and other instruments, such as the Giant Magellan Telescope, a ground-based observatory due to switch on in 2023. But there is only so much that can be done from afar. “We’ll never be 100% sure until we go there,” said Gillon.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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