Preston man helps discover exoplanet that could contain alien life

NASA confirmed the existence of five more Earth-like planets Wednesday after Belgium-operated telescope TRAPPIST discovered two in 2016, providing astronomers with the first concrete opportunity to search for intelligent life outside of the solar system. Proving that life actually thrives there, however, will be extremely hard. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone of the star, known as TRAPPIST-1e, f and g, and may even have oceans on the surface. So many opportunities to learn new things in one planetary systems is extremely compelling.

EARTH'S COUSINS Detecting seven Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star is exotic. All that's been inferred so far is the mass of the planets, their orbits, and how much heat they likely receive from the star, so there's a long way to go yet.

Barclay added that up until now nearly all the planets we know about are not actually seen, but astronomers use proxy observations, like transits, to understand their characteristics.

The Hubble Space Telescope already is on the case. Any of these seven planets could have liquid water, the key to life as we know it.

NASA artists have also drawn up a series of travel posters even though tourists won't be visiting the new planets any time soon.

Gillon and his team have started to analyse the chemical make-up of the atmospheres. Taking up only a few pixels in the camera frame, Earth was, as famous astronomer Carl Sagan put it, "a pale blue dot".

"There is at least one combination of molecules, if present with relative abundance, that would tell us there is life, with 99 percent confidence", said Gillon.

The fact that it is blue is a good clue, because that is the colour of liquid water.

"The view would be lovely - you would have about 200 times less light that from the Sun on Earth at midday", he added. Such a scenario would imply that the tidally locked planets are hostile to life. The solar system is 40 light years away from our own, so there's no chance of anyone today visiting in our lifetime. But these are no moons.

Speaking of methane, it is referred to as a bio-molecule, because it, along with others such as oxygen, and water vapour can be produced by living organisms.

"In the future we want to directly image earth-like planets", he said.

TRAPPIST-1's apparent magnitude - the term for how bright it looks as viewed from Earth - is 18.8, a level that requires a large telescope to see.

The seven planets are just a drop in the cosmic bucket of known exoplanets- planets outside of our own solar system- that scientists know about: there are now 3,458 confirmed exoplanets, according to NASA. "That bodes well for finding habitable planets", he says. It's about 2,000 times dimmer than the sun, and only slightly larger than the planet Jupiter. These researchers had announced the discovery of three initial planets orbiting the same star in May.

Editor's Note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

  • Carolyn Briggs