New planet discoveries are an incredible step in space research

Photo Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jessica Wade
Opinion Editor

With so much controversy going on in the world, it is easy to forget that life exists beyond the United States or, possibly, even beyond our galaxy.

Astronomers from NASA and the European Southern Observatory announced last week that a system of Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a star about 40 light-years away. The first known system of seven earth-like planets orbiting a single star, three of these planets may contain liquid water and possibly be able to sustain life.

Located in the constellation Aquarius and 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) these exoplanets are not far in terms of cosmic-distance, but using current technology it would still take hundreds of millions of years to reach this system.

“It’s interesting that planets have been found relatively nearby, about 12 parsecs or 36 light years away,” UNO astronomy professor Vincent Woolf said. “And it’s interesting that so many have been detected around one star, with two or three in the “habitable zone”, the right distance from the star for temperatures to be right for liquid water on the surface.”

Even though the technology necessary to visit this system is not likely to be developed anytime soon, scientists still plan to research these planets extensively. Using the James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to be unveiled in 2018, scientists should be able to analyze the planets’ surface pressures and temperatures.

“More work needs to be done to figure out what’s going on with the seven planets announced yesterday,” Woolf said. “Nothing will prove life exists elsewhere other than actually detecting life elsewhere.”

While more similar to Earth than any planets in our own solar system, these exoplanets still have their differences. TRAPPIST-1, the star that these planets orbit, is much cooler than our sun and only about 8 percent of our sun’s mass. A red dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1 is not a typical star scientists expect to see many planets orbiting.

According Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute, the close orbits around this small star would mean that one Earth year on a few of these planets would be equal to roughly 3-and-a-half weeks on Earth.

This discovery, while it doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of life outside of our solar system, is still an incredibly significant step in cosmic research. So, if you’re feeling down, just look up. There’s an unfathomably massive universe out there with infinite possibilities.