NASA announced that on Feb 22, using their Spitzer Space Telescope, they had for the first time ever discovered seven new Earth-size and potentially habitable exoplanets around 40 light years from Earth.
In May of 2016, NASA had announced that their Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) had discovered three exoplanets (i.e. planets that orbit a star other than the Sun) in a close-by system. This system, which is now named TRAPPIST-1, was further observed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and scientists now believe that three of the seven planets discovered are in the habitable zone, and all seven planets could possibly harbour liquid water, which according to NASA is “key to life as we know it.”When Catherine Pappas-
When Catherine Pappas-Maenz, a Dawson Geology professor, was asked what would be needed for one of the planets to sustain life, she said: “The only comparison we can make is with the conditions that we find suitable on Earth. For starters, you would need some sort of atmosphere that organisms can survive in.”
According to NASA’s announcement about the discovery, the method they used to observe the exoplanets does not allow the telescope to obtain any information about their atmospheres, nor their compositions. The only assumption that they can make about these planets is that they are rocky, and they claim this based on their densities.
Pappas-Maenz also went on the say that temperate conditions may also be a factor that could be important to foster the growth of life. Given the information that NASA has provided, Pappas-Maenz believes that similar conditions to Earth “could definitely exist on some of these planets.”
The discovery of seven new planets within a relatively close range of Earth sparks another interesting question: is there any life in the universe other than on Earth? When posed with this question, William Roper, a Dawson Pure and Applied student looking to study Astrophysics, said “When you think about how vast the universe is, one can only assume that there is another planet out there that can sustain life, and that has sustained life for longer or at least as long as Earth has.”
Pappas-Maenz seemed less confident than Roper about there being extraterrestrial life. She said, “There are days where I actually think that it is a possibility, and there are other days where I reflect on it and say, ‘I’m not so sure’.”
Regardless of whether one believes there is extraterrestrial life or not, it’s undeniable that the discovery that NASA made is one of extreme importance. According to NASA, their next step involves using their Hubble Space Telescope to observe and record TRAPPIST-1 in order to learn more about the planets’ atmospheres.