Astronomers have made an exciting discovery: there are at least seven planets the size of Earth orbiting one star some 40 light-years away, according to an announcement made at the NASA Headquarters.
This discovery outside the solar system is rare, as these planets have the exciting combination of being the same size as Earth and being all temperate, which means they might have water and could potentially support life, CNN reports.
Michael Gillon, lead study author and astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium, says,
This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star.
The seven exoplanets were found in a tight formation around the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Scientists say that their mass indicates these have rocky surfaces, unlike Jupiter or Saturn that are gaseous. Three of the planets may even have oceans on their surface.
Because of these factors, scientists think the star might be the best candidate for supporting life. It’s a bit cooler than Earth, but with enough greenhouse gases and the right atmosphere, it could actually be livable.
Amaury Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and one of the study authors, says, “I think we’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there. I don’t think any time before we had the right planets to discover and find out if there was (life). Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to what we have on Earth, we will know.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, says, “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. 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.”
Researchers say that there might be more out there, and are encouraged by this new discovery because it enhances humankind’s chances of finding other habitable planets for the future.
The study was published in the journal Nature.