Discovery Of Seven Earth-Sized Planets Could Provide Clues To Alien Life

Feb 23, 2017

This week NASA announced the discovery of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star. The next step is peering more closely at this unique system to search for signs of alien life.

Debra Fischer has discovered hundreds of exoplanets, but she said the seven worlds located a mere 40 light years away in the TRAPPIST-1 system are something special.

"This is, essentially, in our Milky Way galactic backyard," Fischer said. "It means that we have the opportunity to follow up and look for life on these planets."

The finding was published this week in Nature. Fischer, a professor of astronomy at Yale who wasn’t involved with the study, said follow-up efforts on the TRAPPIST-1 system have already started.

She said the Kepler Space telescope will be pointed at this region of sky until March, and measurements gathered from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope will be used to calculate atmospheric pressures. 

"This is a validation of what we learned from Kepler," Fischer said. "It told us that small rocky planets are ubiquitous and that they're frequently found around lower-mass stars."

The TRAPPIST system's star, and the three planets located firmly in its habitable zone, will also be a prime target for the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch next year.