The universe just got a little bigger if humankind wants to stretch its space legs one day.
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Belgium's University of Liège and others announced today that they have detected three planets around the same size as Earth that could possibly support life.
The planets are orbiting a star named TRAPPIST-1 (formal name: 2MASS J23062928-0502285) that is located just 40 light-years from us -- practically next door -- in the constellation Aquarius. The star was given the name TRAPPIST-1 because it was detected using TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope), a 60-centimeter telescope based in Chile that is used for the express purpose of observing stars via infrared that are too dim to be spotted with traditional optical telescopes.
TRAPPIST-1 is a dwarf star, approximately the size of Jupiter, and is said to be very cool, meaning that the three planets circling the star have Earth-like temperatures. This is the first time astronomers have discovered planets orbiting a star so dim (see artist's rendering above).
Belgian researcher Michaël Gillon told the Guardian that the three worlds "could have liquid water on the surfaces, and on Earth life is critically dependent on water. We don’t know, but maybe there could be life there." Gillon and the other scientists involved in the discovery surmise that the trio of planets are the best candidates found so far that could support life outside our own solar system.
Because TRAPPIST-1 is so relatively close to us, scientists will soon be able to study the atmosphere of the planets, determine whether they can sustain life and perhaps even detect whether some kind of life exists there. Researcher Julien de Wit called the discovery "a jackpot for the field.”
If they are habitable, then all we have to do is develop our own hyperdrive and make the 40-year journey over there -- assuming, of course, that anyone already living there is OK with it.