Could the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system be home to alien life?

Artist’s conception of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system as seen from one of the seven Earth-sized planets. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 generated a lot of excitement last week. Earth-sized planets have been found before, among the thousands of exoplanets discovered so far by astronomers, but this is the first time that so many have been detected in one planetary system. As of now, astronomers are limited in how much they can learn about these new worlds, but the James Webb Space Telescope, the upcoming successor to Hubble due to launch in 2018, will be able to gather more data and analyze whatever atmospheres these planets have, perhaps bringing us closer to finding another habitable world.

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NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope discovers seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting nearby star

Artist’s conception of standing on the surface of exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The search for exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – has been one of the most exciting developments in astronomy and space science in recent years. The first couple exoplanets were found in 1992, and now over 3,400 have been confirmed, with over 5,000 additional candidates. Some of these are smaller rocky worlds similar in size to Earth, bringing scientists close to finding “Earth 2.0” – another planet with water and, perhaps, life. Yesterday, NASA announced another key discovery, bringing us even closer to finding another living world – a star with not just one or two Earth-sized planets orbiting it, but seven. Three of those planets are in the star’s habitable zone, where, depending upon other surface conditions, lakes or oceans of liquid water could exist.

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Kepler mission continues with campaign 11 observations after short delay

Graphic showing two full-frame images from Kepler. Modules 3 and 7 failed earlier during Campaign 10 and Module 7 failed later. Image Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel
Graphic showing two full-frame images from Kepler. Modules 3 and 7 failed earlier during Campaign 10 and Module 7 failed later. Image Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

The Kepler K2 mission has now resumed after a delay of three days, NASA has reported. The Kepler Space Telescope is currently in Campaign 11, during which it is observing a total of 14,250 new targets, including the Galactic Center as well as two of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus and Titan.

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Can we send a probe to Proxima Centauri? Yes, but it may get banged up on the way there

Artist’s conception of a Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, a tiny circuit board-like “wafer” attached to a lightsail. Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives
Artist’s conception of a Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, a tiny circuit board-like “wafer” attached to a lightsail. Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Now that we know the closest star system to us has at least one planet, an Earth-mass and potentially habitable one at that, there is one big question a lot of people are asking: Can we go there? Could we send a probe to Proxima Centauri? The answer is… maybe. There have long been ideas and plans for such a mission, but now that at least one planet has been verified there, interest is at an all-time high. It’s doable, but not necessarily easy.

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