A nearby ultra-cool dwarf star, at a relatively close distance of 40 light years away, in the constellation of Aquarius has revealed to be perhaps one of the most spectacular finds in NASA’s exploration beyond our Solar System. The star which has been named TRAPPIST-1 is accompanied by its own system of seven Earth-sized planets which show a great potential in adding to the question, of whether there is life outside our own Earth.

It began when researchers in Chile using the The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), after which it was named, on 2nd May 2016 announced their discovery of three planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star, This lead to a great collaborative effort involving NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope along with various ground-based telescopes, like the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Finally, Spitzer too established the discoveries of the planets, along with a further two more, bringing the count up to the seven.

On February 22, NASA released their results in the scientific journal Nature,  a finding which now holds the record for being the largest abundance of planets found in the ‘goldilocks zone’ in a single planetary system outside their own solar system. ‘Goldilocks zone’ describes the habitable area around stars in which planets are capable of sustaining life by containing water, and in the TRAPPIST-1 system, three of its planets fall into this zone. Although with the help of the right atmospheric conditions all the seven likely-rocky planets have the potential to contain liquid water.

The seventh planet farthest from its star, has an unknown mass, yet researchers speculate it to be a snowball-like world of ice, however, further research will be conducted in understanding the compositions of each planet. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope so far has helped determine that the two inner planets are to be of a rocky composition due to the lack of detection for hydrogen-dominated atmospheres.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” stated Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper in the press release by NASA.

“It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.” he expanded.

Now Hubble is looking to analyse four planets, including the three key finds, for this atmospheric profile. Further research will be done by NASA’s cutting-edge James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2018, that with its greater sensitivity will allow a greater insight into the conditions in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system.

Palwasha Najeeb, Correspondent (Science)

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