Seven Alien 'Earths' Found Orbiting Nearby Star

The Earth-size worlds orbit a star just 39 light-years away, and most may have the
right conditions to host liquid water on their surfaces.

Illustration of a dwarf star

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An illustration shows the view from just above one of the middle planets in the
TRAPPIST-1 star system, which is now known to host seven Earth-size worlds.

ILLUSTRATION BY M. KORNMESSER, SPACEENGINE.ORG/ESO

By Nadia Drake

PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 22, 2017

Seven rocky planets orbiting a nearby star may be roughly the size of Earth and
could even be right for water—and maybe life—to adorn their surfaces, researchers
announced Wednesday.

The planets, which circle a star called TRAPPIST-1 just 39 light-years away, are
tucked together so tightly that they routinely spangle each others’ skies, sometimes
appearing as shimmering crescents and at other times as orbs nearly twice as large
as the full moon.

“The spectacle would be beautiful,” says the University of Cambridge’s Amaury
Triaud, coauthor of a study describing the otherworldly heptad that appears in the
journal Nature.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is now tied with several others that have seven planets for
the greatest number of planets in a stellar system other than our own (which has
eight, not counting dwarf planets like Pluto). The system’s existence suggests that
Earth-size planets are much more plentiful than previously imagined.

And now, it’s among the best neighborhoods to study for signs of life beyond Earth:
The relative sizes of the planets and star, plus the system’s proximity, mean that
plucking the signatures of living, breathing organisms from the planet’s
atmospheres could be within reach.

casting shadows that betrayed their presence. in July. and as the telescope stared at the star. a pattern began to emerge. Morocco. it’s because scientists have been announcing splashy discoveries about the star and its planets for nearly a year now. scientists have spotted and confirmed even more planets around TRAPPIST-1. Now. “Temperate. Then. terrestrial-sized planets are relatively common in the galaxy. aided by an army of telescopes based in Chile.” says NASA’s Natalie Batalha. South Africa. after aiming NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope at the system for 20 unblinking days and nights. and elsewhere. which orbits just 39 light-years away. Among those blips. called an M dwarf. LUCKY NUMBER SEVEN If the name TRAPPIST-1 sounds familiar.” WATCH: SEVEN EXOPLANETS AROUND COOL DWARF Get amazing facts about the planets found around the nearby star TRAPPIST-1.“Those yawning over yet another discovery of habitable-zone planets may not fully appreciate that priorities are shifting and focusing. scientists counted signs of seven planets. Though their home star is a runt—roughly 8 percent of the sun’s mass and about one-thousandth as bright—it’s among the most common types of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Last May. the team presented evidence that at least three planets orbited the star. some of which were deemed Earth-size and potentially habitable. MIT’s Julien de Wit reported more about what two of the planets could be like. . suggesting denser atmospheres like those of Earth and Venus. YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE Weird Life Found Trapped in Giant Underground Crystals 9 Oscar-Nominated Movies to Inspire Your Next Adventure 7 Magical Places to View Auroras Spitzer can see in infrared. The star’s infrared light would periodically dim as its planets marched across its face. The star’s feeble light washes over the seven sister planets in mostly infrared. which can be felt as heat but is invisible to the human eye. The name of the game now is to find those near enough for atmospheric characterization.

they’re also roughly the same mass.” says Lauren Weiss of the Université de Montréal. or at least. With the caveat that TRAPPIST-1h’s orbit isn’t well known.5 to roughly 20 Earth days. it seems three of the planets—TRAPPIST-1e through TRAPPIST-1g—are squarely in the star’s habitable zone.” Called TRAPPIST-1b. although it’s possible they could be small worlds enveloped in big fluffy atmospheres. plus others. seven planets shook themselves loose from the starlight to create a cosmic septet. Curiously. too. Ultimately. like siblings in a crowded household. causing slight delays and perturbations in the pattern of blips spied by Spitzer. and so on through TRAPPIST-1h. . They’re snuggled closer to their star than Mercury is to the sun and. scientists could determine the approximate masses of the planets. scientists searching for Earth’s cosmic cousins concentrated on stars similar to our sun. there are probably a lot of other small stars with a similar number of planets. further scrutiny revealed that one of the “planets” announced in 2016 turned out to be multiple worlds. 1c. They found that in addition to being roughly Earth’s size. says Weiss. Until recently. Based on those perturbations. the rest could be habitable. and the seventh planet is likely real. dim stars are also quite capable of hosting Earths—good news for those keeping track of how many such planets might be populating the galaxy. the planets have years ranging in length from 1. “The detections of the six inner planets are very secure. That means the seven sisters are likely rocky. they gravitationally tug and jostle one another. This discovery. suggests that small.Three were the original Earth-size planets announced last year. the right temperature for water to pool and flow across their surfaces if their internal anatomy and atmospheres cooperate. “If TRAPPIST-1 could make this many planets.

” writes Leiden University’s Ignas Snellen in a commentary accompanying the study. the fifth rock from its star. . meaning that one of their hemispheres is kept relatively toasty while the other is perpetually facing into the cold cosmic night. TRAPPIST-1’s planets likely do the same. But don’t get too excited about life yet.“The authors could have been lucky. but finding seven transiting Earth-sized planets in such a small sample suggests that the solar system with its four (sub-)Earth-sized planets might be nothing out of the ordinary. for a number of reasons. SEARCH FOR LIFE Scientists are particularly intrigued by TRAPPIST-1f. First of all. the system is comparable in scale and architecture to Jupiter and its four large moons. each of which orbits the giant planet with the same face pointed inward. and suggest that it could be in the sweetest of the spots where life could thrive. all the time.