If you're fearing for the safety of the planet over the next four years, you can now rest a little easier: NASA's just discovered a cluster of seven planets – all a similar size to Earth – orbiting around their own star. And at least three of them are deemed to be habitable.
It's probably best not to pack your bags and don your space suits just yet though: the planets are 40 light years away, which, while in space terms doesn't sound like too much, it's still a lot further than humans have ever travelled – 235 trillion miles, in fact.
The new planets have been discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that follows Earth around its orbit of the sun. This discovery sets a new record for for largest group of habitable-zone planets – planets that are the optimum distance away from their star to raise the likelihood of having water – found around a single star (apart from our own solar system, of course). Technically exoplanets since they're out of our solar system, the planets have been dubbed TRAPPIST-1, named after the Transitioning Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (aka TRAPPIST) based in Chile. TRAPPIST was used in May 2016 to discover three of the planets in the system, and Spitzer later confirmed the discovery, as well as revealing four additional planets.
Video credit: NASA
While we here on Earth may be chomping at the bit at the idea of moving to a planet that Donald Trump hasn't (yet) got his destructive little mitts on, NASA is more interested on using the new find to further research into the ever-important question: "is there life out there?". Perhaps the planets are already occupied? Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said, “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”
Based on the data found via the Spitzer telescope, the NASA team behind the discovery have been busy measuring the planets in order to come up with estimations of the mass of each one. They've deduced that all seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky, and while water is deemed to be a possibility on all seven of them, it'll take further observation to get a solid answer as to whether they have liquid water on their surfaces.
An artist's impressions of how the TRAPPIST-1 system might look. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Investigations have also been carried out into the star that the TRAPPIST-1 planets orbit. It's much cooler than our own sun, classified by NASA as an 'ultra-cool dwarf', so hospitable planets could technically orbit it much closer than in our own solar system. In fact, all seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planets orbit their star in a closer proximity than Mercury does to the sun – Mercury being the closest of our solar system's eight planets. This also means the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets are fairly close together: if you were to live on one of them, you'd likely see the neighbouring planets in the sky appearing closer than the moon does to Earth.
Much more research needs carrying out on the TRAPPIST-1 discovery before we can get a true picture of how they compare to our home planet. The Spitzer telescope will carry out more investigations later in the year, and NASA are planning to use new technology to make greater discoveries. The James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch next year, will be able to tell us much more intricate details about each planet's make-up, including its temperature and the components that contribute to its atmosphere. We won't have to wait as long as 2018 to find out more details though: NASA's Kelper telescope is already at work on observing TRAPPIST-1, and its findings will be available in March.
Pipedream or reality? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The idea that planets like Earth exist outside of our own solar system is an exciting prospect – but not entirely surprising, given the vastness of space and the limitations of our own technology. Whether life on those planets would be possible (or already exists) raises an intriguing question, especially considering the state of the Earth today. Unfortunately for us, it's unlikely we'll be able to board any rocketships to take us to TRAPPIST-1 within the next four years. For now, we'll just have to grit our teeth and daydream of a carefree, Trump-free life on a faraway planet. [NASA]