Want To Help Astronomers Search For Alien Life? Here's How

The quest to find life on other planets got a boost when astronomers confirmed the existence of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light years away.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is home to seven planets that are about the size of Earth and potentially just the right temperature to support life. NASA announced on Wednesday its Spitzer telescope revealed the presence of seven planets nearby that could support life.

At present, astronomers have identified some 3,500 exoplanets across more than 2,600 planetary systems. "So far, it holds the record for number of rocky planets in the HZ".

Even though the years are short in the TRAPPIST-1 system, the days would be very long - nearly eternal, because the according to the scientists behind the discovery, it's very likely the seven planets are tidally locked, meaning that one side of each planet is always facing the star. Further investigation using ground telescopes including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Spitzer, revealed the system comprises seven planets. But if they have Earthlike atmospheres, TRAPPIST-1e, TRAPPIST-1f and TRAPPIST-1g would be warm enough all over to have liquid water, making them ripe for life.

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Scientists at yesterday's press conference, which was held in NY and streamed live on the Nasa website, explained that if we were able to travel at light-speed we would be able to reach the star in 39 years. "Future NASA space experiments like the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission will allow us to image planets like Earth".

Not without a powerful telescope. The position of the habitable zone is different around each star - on a very dim star like TRAPPIST-1, which radiates significantly less heat than the sun, the habitable zone lies much closer to the star.

This is not the first time the astronomers have discovered new planets or exoplanets.

According to Andrew Siemion, director of SETI and the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, SETI looks for "artifacts of intelligence" on foreign planets in various forms because there is no way to detect life at interstellar distances using the direct methods that researchers might use to explore life on Earth. The discovery of life even one of these exoplanets will be a watershed scientific moment, on par with the Copernican revolution, which ushered in the heliocentric model of the solar system.

If detecting life on Earth would be hard from the edge of our solar system, finding it around a star system 39 light-years away will be a much greater challenge.

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. However finding out the answer to these questions isn't within our immediate grasp. While we may have not [yet] found intelligent life beyond our own planet, it appears it is only a matter of time until we do.

Michaël Gillon, an astrophysicist at University of Liège in Belgium, and colleagues announced previous year that they had found three Earth-sized planets around TRAPPIST-1, an ultracool dwarf star previously called 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (SN: 05/28/16, p. 6).

  • Carolyn Briggs