You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Scientists could find out if alien life exists on new planets in just 10 years

Mirror logo Mirror 23/02/2017 Steve Robson
UP NEXT
UP NEXT

Scientists could know if alien life exists on at least three planets in a newly-discovered solar system in just ten years.

Astronomers have detected no less than seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting a cool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, located in the constellation Aquarius.

Three of these planets lie within the star's "habitable zone" where surface temperatures range from nought to 100 degrees centigrade.

All seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cambridge astronomer Dr Amaury Triaud said: "Here we have the right target to start the search for life.

"Within the next decade we could know if we are alone in the universe. And that is quite incredible.”

"We've made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there."

No other star system known to man contains such a large number of Earth-sized and probably rocky planets.

"This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

"Answering the question 'are we alone' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal."

The findings were published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star, classified as an ultra-cool dwarf, is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it - closer than is possible on planets in our own solar system.

All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other.

Exoplanet discovery: Take a 360 degree tour of Earth-like planet that COULD host alien life

Credits: PA © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: PA

If a person was standing on one of the planet's surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighbouring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth's sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, according to NASA, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, so each side is either perpetual day or night.

This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will help determine whether they could have liquid water on their surfaces.

The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, "snowball-like" world, but further observations are needed.

The planetary system was identified by NASA's orbiting Spitzer telescope, with help from several ground-based telescopes - including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and a robotic telescope operated by Liverpool John Moores University.

Credits: PA © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: PA

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light.

Meanwhile, the Liverpool telescope, located on La Palma in the Canary Islands, helped detect the planets as they passed in front of their star.

The planets were found using the "transit" method that looks for tiny amounts of dimming caused by a world blocking light from its star.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SWNS.com © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SWNS.com

"As a robotic telescope and the largest in the world, the Liverpool telescope is very sensitive to the small, less-than-1% dips in brightness through which the planets are discovered," said British astronomer Dr Chris Copperwheat, from Liverpool John Moores University, who co-led the international team.

"It's all automated, it's flexible and fast, and so is ideal for this sort of time critical work."

Coolest space discoveries

More from The Mirror

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon