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Breakthrough! NASA Discovers New Solar System That Could Be Home to Alien Life

Feb 23, 2017 05:55 AM EST
Terrestrial Planets
Artist's view of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 system.
(Photo : NASA, ESA, and STScI)

With NASA's discovery of a solar system nearby consisting of seven Earth-like planets, the hunt for extraterrestrial life begins.

Just 39 light-years away from our solar system, seven exoplanets circles around an ultracool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Live Science reported that the six inner planets reportedly have masses similar to Earth and are made of rock with a surface temperature ranging from 0 to 100 degrees Celcius. Liquid water is a possibility in at least three of the planets, and with it, life.

"Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today," Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the University of Bern's Center for Space and Habitability and one of the authors of the paper published in Nature, said in an official report from the University of Bern.

First, scientists need the proper equipment to detect life -- or even signs of it in oxygen or methane -- dozens of light-years away. According to a report from Space, devices to assist astronomers are nearly available. NASA is planning to launch the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by the latter part of 2018.

"The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, will have the possibility to detect the signature of ozone if this molecule is present in the atmosphere of one of these planets," Demory continued. The signature of ozone is a prime indicator for any biological activity on the planet.

Three additional ground-based telescopes are also in the works: the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). All three are expected to be completed in the 2020s.

All of these instruments will be capable of detecting "biosignature" gases, but scientists are quick to explain that the presence of either oxygen or methane isn't proof of life as these gases could be created through abiotic and biotic processes. However, finding both gases would be very convincing. In those conditions, life is bringing methane in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, according to NASA's Shawn Domagal-Goldman.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets would likely be some of the first targets of the JWST once its operational. Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, revealed that scientists could get a good idea of the exoplanets' atmospheric conditions as soon as the early 2020s.

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