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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby sta... https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/22/thrilling-disco...

Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized


planets orbiting nearby star
Exoplanets found orbiting Trappist-1 raise hope that the hunt for alien life beyond the
solar system can start much sooner than previously thought

Nasa announces discovery of seven Earth-sized planets video report

Ian Sample Science editor


Wednesday 22 February 2017 18.00GMT

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 rst 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 rmness 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
Michal Gillon, an astrophysicist at the University of Lige in Belgium. Details of the
work are reported in Nature.

While the planets have Earth-like dimensions, their sizes ranging from 25% smaller to
10% larger, they could not be more dierent in other features. Most striking is how
compact the planets 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 fth 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,

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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby sta... https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/22/thrilling-disco...

Amaury added. I think weve made a crucial step in nding out if theres 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 rst
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.

Any life that gained a foothold and the capacity to look up


would have a remarkable view from a Trappist-1 world. From
the fth 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. Nasas
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 conned 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 ndings 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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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby sta... https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/22/thrilling-disco...

The top row shows an artists 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 rst 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 Nasas 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. Well never be 100% sure until we go
there, said Gillon.

The conditions on planets so close to dwarf stars, which are known to release erce
bursts of x-rays and ultraviolet light, might not be the most conducive for life. But when
the sun goes out in a few billion years, Trappist-1 will still be an infant star. It burns
hydrogen so slowly that it will last another 10 trillion years, Snellen writes in an
accompanying Nature article. That is more than 700 times longer than the universe has
existed, so there is plenty of time yet for life to evolve.

David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University who was not


involved in the latest study, said a growing number of astronomers were getting excited
about what he called the M-dwarf opportunity the study of planets around such faint
dwarf stars. Its a fast track approach to looking for life beyond the solar system, he
said.

M-dwarfs outnumber sun-like stars 12 to 1 in the Milky Way. In previous work with
Nasas Kepler planet-hunting telescope, Charbonneau and his colleague Courtney
Dressing, found that one in four of M-dwarfs stars hosts a planet that is similar in size
and temperature to Earth. With the Trappist-1 observations, astronomers now know that
Earth-like planets circle nearby dwarf stars that can be studied with instruments already
in the pipeline. This means we might be in the business of looking for aliens in a
decade, and not, as others have envisioned, on a much longer timescale, he said.

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