Have astronomers just discovered a second Earth?
For anyone else, the week commencing 20th February 2017 was just a normal week. However for the astronomical word, this seemingly ordinary week was a game-changer, one that could call into question everything we know about our solar system and beyond.
In what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has called a “Holy Grail”, a team of astrophysicists, along with the assistance of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, have discovered a brand new solar system which draws incredible parallels to our own. Situated within the star TRAPPIST-1 (around 40 light years away from Earth) researchers have now discovered the existence of seven exoplanets—defined by NASA as a planet or planets orbiting a star outside of our solar system.
Despite the fact that NASA analysis suggests that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy alone, the emergence of a heretofore undiscovered solar system is huge news in for astronomers and astrophysicists alike. Furthermore, this incredible discover is made all the more incredible when coming alongside substantiated evidence that these exoplanets sit within a temperature zone to allow lifeform habitation, and are capable of hosting liquid water on their surfaces. Such a grouping of Earth-sized planets that could support lifeforms is the first discovery of this magnitude in human history.
To show the potential that this new discovery brings, British Astronomer Dr. Chris Copperwheat proudly comments: “The discovery of multiple rocky planets with surface temperatures which allow for liquid water make this amazing system an exciting future target in the search for life”. Thomas Zurbuchen of Washington’s Science Mission Dictorate goes one step further, positively unbridled in his enthusiasm for the discovery: “The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when”.
As with anything happening outside of Earth’s atmosphere, further analysis and investigation about this additional solar system may be slow, but Dr. Amaury Triaud of the Intitute of Astronomy in Cambridge was confident in his assessment that there’s potential to “know if there’s life [on the other planets] within the next decade”.
It’s perhaps still too early to say what this momentous discovery really means for our world—and in fact any other worlds that exist outside of our own—but one thing we do know for sure is that the discovery, made public in a NASA press conference on 22nd February 2017, is one of the most fundamental discoveries of our time.
Watch this space…