Astronomers Find Three Potentially Habitable Planets 40 Light-years From Earth

Posted on May 2, 2016

Astronomers have found three potentially habitable planets located about 40 light-years from Earth. The researchers from MIT, the University of Liege in Belgium, and elsewhere used TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) to discover the planets. The 60-centimeter telescope is operated by the University of Liege in Chile.

The astronomers say these three planets are the best targets so far in the search for extraterrestrial life. They are orbiting an ultracool dwarf star named 2MASS J23062928-0502285. This star is now also known as TRAPPIST-1 The planets are similar in size to Earth and Venus. The two innermost planets have short orbits of 1.5 and 2.4 days. The astronomers say despite being very close to their star they only receive about 4 times as much radiation as the Earth receives from the Sun. The third planet has an orbit of four to 73 days.

The astronomers believe the planets may have regions with temperatures under 400 kelvins that could sustain liquid water. The planets are all tidally locked with permanent day and night sides. Even if the planets have large regions too hot during the day for life or too cold at night they could have "sweet spots" that are temperate enough to sustain life. The artist's impression above shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets. The image below depicts the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its three planets.

Julien de Wit, a postdoc in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, says we should be able to assess whether or not these planets are inhabited within our generation. de Wit says in a statement, "These planets are so close, and their star so small, we can study their atmosphere and composition, and further down the road, which is within our generation, assess if they are actually inhabited. All of these things are achievable, and within reach now. This is a jackpot for the field."

de Wit also says, "Now we have to investigate if they're habitable. We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life. We have facilities all over the globe and in space that are helping us, working from UV to radio, in all different wavelengths to tell us everything we want to know about this system. So many people will get to play with this [system]."

A research paper on the newly discovered planets was published here in the journal, Nature. You can find more data on the brown dwarf star 2MASS J23062928-0502285 here.

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