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NASA Exoplanet Discovery: Can These Planets Really Contain Alien Life?

Every question you have, answered.

23/02/2017 12:02 GMT

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 24 hours you might have noticed that NASA made a pretty huge announcement last night.

NASA announced that it had found not one, but seven Earth-like planets orbiting a single star.

What made things even more exciting was that it is just under 40 light years away.

While there has been a lot of hype surrounding the announcement and about what it could mean we thought we’d break things down into a simple Q&A that should hopefully put the discovery into perspective.

What Has NASA Actually Discovered

NASA has discovered seven exoplanets, all that could be described as Earth-like, and all orbiting a single star.

The solar system is called TRAPPIST-1 and it’s located about 235 trillion miles away in the Aquarius constellation.

NASA

What you may not know is that three of these planets are not new discoveries. Researchers first learnt about TRAPPIST-1’s exoplanets back in May 2016 when they announced that they had found three planets that could be Earth-like.

It was only after working with other major telescopes around the world including NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope that they were able to find all seven and determine what they were made of.

Why Is This A Big Deal?

Well any discovery of an exoplanet is a big deal because by very definition these are planets that share a similar composition to the planets we have in our own solar system.

NASA

What makes TRAPPIST-1 really special though can be summarised in three points:

1. This is the largest number of exoplanets that we have found orbiting a single star.

2. Three of these seven planets are right in the middle of what we call the ‘habitable zone’ which means that they are the right distance from a star to potentially support an atmosphere that could contain life.

3. Despite the fact only three are in the ‘habitable zone’ astronomers believe all seven planets could theoretically support liquid water on their surface.

So Are There Aliens On Any Of These Planets?

Well this is the ultimate question, and it’s one that we just don’t know at the moment.

As Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington said of the discovery: “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.”

NASA

While we’re still a long way from being able to say conclusively whether there is life in TRAPPIST-1 or not, the discovery of so many exoplanets so close to home confirms what many astronomers now believe: That there are a lot of planets out there and far more than we expected could have the environmental conditions needed to create life.

What TRAPPIST-1 does give us though is a chance to explore these planets close-up. 

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

What Are These Exoplanets Like?

The researchers who discovered them have described the planets as all being “rocky”.

What we also know is that because they’re all incredibly close to their host star.

That means that if you could stand on the surface of one of them the star in the sky would be 10x larger than our own Sun is.

You would also be able to see the other planets with incredible detail, possibly even making out atmospheric features like cloud formations.

Finally we know that they’re probably tidally locked. This means quite simply that they don’t rotate, so one side of the planet will be in permanent night and the other in permanent day.

NASA’s Favourite Photos Of 2016

  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    In this 30 second exposure taken with a circular fish-eye lens a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower as a photographer wipes moisture from the camera lenses Friday August 12 2016 in Spruce Knob West Virginia
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The second and final qualification motor QM-2 test for the Space Launch Systems booster is seen Tuesday June 28 2016 at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory Utah
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 48 crew members NASA astronaut Jeff Williams Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan Kazakhstan on Wednesday Sept 7 2016Kazakh time
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    In this long exposure photograph the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft is seen launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Expedition 50 crewmembers NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Friday Nov 18 2016
  • NASA/Joel Kowsky
    The Soyuz MS-02 rocket is launched with Expedition 49 Soyuz commander Sergey Ryzhikov of Roscosmos flight engineer Shane Kimbrough of NASA and flight engineer Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos Wednesday Oct 19 2016 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Kazakhstan Monday July 4 2016
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    NASA astronaut Jeff Williams left Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos center and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos are seen inside the Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft a few moments after they landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan Kazakhstan on Wednesday Sept 7 2016Kazakh time
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Expedition 48-49 crewmembers Kate Rubins of NASA Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency JAXA onboard Thursday July 7 2016 Kazakh time July 6 Eastern time Baikonur Kazakhstan
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    In this 30 second exposure a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday August 12 2016 in Spruce Knob West Virginia
  • NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
    From left to right Jack Connerney Juno deputy principal investigator and magnetometer lead co-investigator NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center Chris Jones associate director for flight projects and mission success NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory JPL Dr Jim Green Planetary Science Division Director NASA Scott Bolton Juno principal investigator Southwest Research Institute Geoff Yoder acting Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate NASA Michael Watkins director NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory JPL and Rick Nybakken Juno project manager Jet Propulsion Laboratory JPL celebrate with others on the Juno team after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the engine burn and entered orbit of Jupiter Monday July 4 2016 in mission control of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena CA
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Orbital ATK Antares rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard launches from Pad-0A Monday Oct 17 2016 at NASAs Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 49 crew members NASA astronaut Kate Rubins Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos and astronaut Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency JAXA near the town of Zhezkazgan Kazakhstan on Sunday Oct 30 2016
  • NASA/Joel Kowsky
    The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASAs Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off on from Space Launch Complex 41 on Thursday Sept 8 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida
  • NASA/Joel Kowsky
    This composite image made from ten frames shows the International Space Station with a crew of six onboard in silhouette as it transits the sun at roughly five miles per second Saturday Dec 17 2016 from Newbury Park California
  • NASA/Bill Ingalls
    The Orbital ATK Antares rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard launches from Pad-0A Monday Oct 17 2016 at NASAs Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia