During a special announcement today, NASA announced they discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the TRAPPIST-1 star system using the Spitzer space telescope. The TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius. The planets are lettered in alphabetical order from “b” to “h” from their distance to the star. The star is only slightly bigger than Jupiter, and puts out about 0.05% as much light as our sun. It takes its name from the 23-inch telescope in Chile that the astronomers used to find it, known as the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.
Conditions on TRAPPIST 1e could be very similar to those on Earth. But don’t pack your bags to visit yet; technology doesn’t exist to get there. If you were moving at the speed of light, it would take 39 years. According to NASA, if you were to travel in a commercial jetliner, it would take you 44 million years. And while water and other conditions could be favorable to sustain life there, scientists aren’t completely certain yet: additional probing by technology such as the Hubble Telescope will be needed to examine this part of space. During today’s NASA press conference, NASA scientists say it could take upwards of 5 years to confirm conditions on these planets.
Nevertheless, the discovery is a rare one: scientists are only aware of three other Earth-like planets in all of space thus far, and the fact that several Earth-like planets exist around a single star has excited space scientists.
Should water be confirmed on these planets, scientists will see if Earth-like weather also exists. Data suggests TRAPPIST-1’s planets face the star the same way all the time; this would result in a a very bright and hot one side and a very cold and dark reverse side. Without a thick enough atmosphere, those thermal extremes wouldn’t be distributed around the planets. But if a thick atmosphere does exist, there could be weather systems much like Earth’s to bring cold air into warmer regions and warm air into colder ones.