NASA finds Earth-sized, habitable planets orbiting a star

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt, T. Pyle (IPAC)
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By Charles Roop
February 22, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Scientists have found seven planets orbiting a star outside of the Solar System - three of them in the habitable zone - NASA announced Wednesday.

The star and seven planets surround an ultra-cool dwarf star located in the Aquarius constellation, according to NASA. The planets are around 40 light years away from the Earth. This means that if you traveled at the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), it would take 40 years to reach the planets.

Three planets are located in a zone where liquid water is highly possible, also known as the habitable zone. They noted that all seven planets could have water, but the best odds are with three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in the press release. “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.”

The planet system is being dubbed TRAPPIST-1, and each of the planets are given letters b through h. The planets are pretty close to the star as it only takes as short as one and a half day for the closest planet to orbit the sun (it takes us 365.25 days to revolve around the sun). The longest orbit duration is around 20 days for TRAPPIST-1h.

At least two of the planets in the habitable zone (e and f) are thought to be very similar to Earth since they are closest in size.

The planets are also close enough that anyone standing on a planet's surface could see the nearby planets.

NASA also noted that the planets may be locked into the star, meaning one side of the planet will always be in daylight, and the other side in permanent night.

"This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes," NASA said.

The planets were first discovered by The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile in 2016. The Spitzer infrared telescope in space confirmed the discovery. Hubble and Kepler telescopes have also been used to study the planet system.

James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, will also help gain more knowledge of the planet system.

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