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.
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.
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.