by Anna Gombert
NASA held a press conference streamed on their official website at 1 p.m. EST on Wednesday Feb. 22 to announce a recent discovery. With the infrared Spitzer Telescope, and several smaller group telescopes, researchers were able to discover seven Earth-sized planets orbiting around the same star, setting the record for the most possibly habitable planets around one star. These planets are known as exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system. Three of the seven discovered planets reside in the habitable zone, the area in which a planet is most likely to have liquid water. However, any of the seven planets could theoretically have water. All seven planets are also very likely rocky. The solar system is located near 40 light years away and is in the Aquarius constellation. The system has been dubbed TRAPPIS-1, named after The Transmitting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.
The team of researchers was able to determine the size, mass and density of all the planets, except the seventh and furthest one, from the data gathered by the Spitzer. The star of the TRAPPIST-1 system falls into the category of “ultra-cool dwarf,” which means even the planets closest to the star could have water in its liquid form on their surfaces. Unlike our solar system, the TRAPPIST planets are all relatively close to the star and may possibly orbit with the same side always facing the star. The Hubble Telescope is now scanning three of the planets to determine their atmospheres. The Hubble has already been used to inspect the two planets closest to the star and determine that they do not have hydrogen-dominated atmospheres.
The press conference was comprised of experts and scientists: Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington; Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium; Sean Carey, the manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC, Pasadena, California; Nikole Lewis, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore; and Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. The experts took turns answering questions asked through phone, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
Julien Hryshko (’19), who watched the press conference, stated “All in all, I think that’s pretty exciting that there’s a good chance there’s water, and possibly life, on those exoplanets. I’m excited to see the other new discoveries down the line and what comes of this. It seems about time that Earth got some friends.”