NASA announces discovery of seven potentially habitable exoplanets

For those of you who have spent the last year saying “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore,” NASA has found you a few new real estate options. The Spitzer space telescope has discovered a solar system containing a record setting seven earth size planets, three of which NASA says are located in the “habitable zone”, which refers to the distance from the system’s star that creates the highest likelihood of liquid water.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “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.”

The system, located in the constellation Aquarius, is about 40 light-years from Earth, making it relatively close on a  galactic scale. Three of the planets in the system were originally discovered by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, says NASA. The stars, and another four, have since been confirmed by Spitzer. The Spitzer team has been analyzing data to gather information about the planets, and NASA says all of them, based on their densities, appear to be rocky. Further analysis is needed to make any conclusions.

TRAPPIST-1, as the system has been named, is an ultra cool dwarf star, says the Belgium-based research team. This means the planets closer to the star may have liquid water.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

NASA said in a release that, following their confirmation by Spitzer, the Hubble Space Telescope would be conducting further analysis of the planets focusing on the three that are located within the habitable zone. The Hubble telescope will attempt to discern the composition of the planets’ atmospheres.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Following its launch in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will join in the study of these exoplanets. The new telescope makes use of new technology that will allow “much greater sensitivity,” says NASA.  “[The telescope] will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere.” The telescope will also be able to determine surface temperatures and pressures of the planets, which NASA says are “key factors” in assessing their ability to sustain life.

Of course, moving to one of these new planets is not a viable option at the moment. NASA hasn’t sent a crew on a mission to land on any celestial body outside of Earth since the Apollo Moon Missions, with the last human landing on the Moon in 1972. However, crewed missions could be on the docket, which indicates progress.

In anticipation of potential trips to Mars, and possibly the resource-rich asteroid belt, NASA has announced that they are currently looking into plans to add a two person crew to their EM-1 launch in 2018, pushing the mission back to 2019 or 2020 to accommodate the changes. The mission, originally slated to be an uncrewed test of the new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, may be changed at the request of the Trump administration. Other options included adding a crew to the EM-2 mission, but that, officials say, would be impossible to arrange while moving the mission forward.

Under the previous administration, the US government set the goal of putting humans on Mars by the 2030s. President Obama announced at the end of 2016 that the US government would be partnering with private companies to send crewed missions to Mars. Initially, it was thought that the new administration might cut back on funding for NASA missions, though this recent announcement suggests that they will be making NASA a priority.

Furthermore, earlier this month SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center from pad 39A, the same launch pad that the historic Apollo 11 mission launched from in 1969. The rocket carried a Dragon spacecraft to the international space station with 5500 pounds of cargo and supplies for a resupply mission. The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are the company’s main hopes for space exploration. The Falcon Heavy, says SpaceX, “can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost.”

Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, said in a Feb.18 twitter post that “provided Dragon 2 demo missions go well, SpaceX is highly confident of being able to fly US astronauts in 2018.”

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