Science & Skepticism

Scientists Find 3 Potentially Habitable Planets Near Earth

By Andrew Follett

A team of astronomers from the University of Liège in Belgium found three potentially inhabitable planets relatively close to Earth, according to a study published online Monday.

Three planets are in orbit around a star known as TRAPPIST-1. They’re “currently the best place to search for life beyond the solar system,” according to the study. This is because they are likely in the “Goldilocks Zone,”  the region around a star that has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet’s surface. The three new worlds are only 39.13 light-years, or parsecs, away in the Aquarius constellation.

“This really is a paradigm shift with regards to the planet population and the path towards finding life in the Universe,” Dr. Emmanuël Jehin, the study’s co-author, said in a press release. “So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets!”

The planets were originally located using the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope, but the observations which determined the planets were near the size of Earth were made by the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

“[S]ystems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology,” Dr. Michaël Gillon, the paper’s lead author, said in a press release. “So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look.”

Astronomers plan to search these planets for signs of life by studying the effect the atmospheres of the planets have on the light reaching Earth. For Earth-sized planets orbiting most stars this tiny effect is usually swamped starlight, but the TRAPPIST 1 is a red ultra-cool dwarf stars, which isn’t bright enough to block out the effect.

Despite being so close to the Earth, this star is too dim and too red to be seen with the naked eye or even visually with a large amateur telescope.

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