The TRAPPIST-1 Star Is Where the Hunt for Intelligent Life Is Heading Next

The TRAPPIST-1 Star Is Where the Hunt for Intelligent Life Is Heading Next
Source: ESO
Source: ESO

Three new exoplanets in a star system just 40 light-years away from Earth have captured the attention of astronomers. They say it might be the perfect place to search for signs of life.

The most exciting part is that the planets are about Earth-sized, which makes them good candidates for hosting life. They're also orbiting a really dim star that will make it easy to study their atmospheres. That means if life is hiding on these three planets, it'll be easier to find signs of it.

"The winning combination: 'Earth-sized' + 'potentially habitable' + 'well-suited for atmospheric studies, including biosignatures search,' which makes these three planets the first opportunities to find chemical traces of life outside our solar system," Julien de Wit, co-author on the new study describing the planets, told Mic in an email.

Source: ESO

Astronomers used the TRAPPIST telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile to find the planets circling a star they named TRAPPIST-1. It's a puny star barely larger than Jupiter. It's also much redder and dimmer than our sun:

TRAPPIST-1 compared to the sun
Source: ESO

"These are the first planets found around such stars," de Wit said. "All other exoplanet transit searches are designed to target hotter bigger stars."

Until now, astronomers didn't even think these kinds of stars were capable of hosting Earth-sized planets. 

"These tiny stars and brown dwarfs were just overlooked, despite that they represent between 25% and 50% of the number of stellar objects of the galaxy," de Wit said.

Unfortunately, follow-up observations revealed that the planets might not fall within the "habitable zone." The habitable zone is the distance a planet can be from its sun to give it the right conditions to host life: Too close to the sun, it's an inferno; too far away and it's a frozen tundra. 

However, these kinds of star systems aren't well studied, and it's possible that these planets could still host life, according to NASA.

Source: ESO

De Wit said the team is using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes to examine the atmospheres of the three planets right now. We might find traces of things like water vapor and methane, which could mean the planets are indeed capable of supporting life. 

When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, we'll be able to study their composition, temperature and pressure, de Wit said. The next generation of large, ground-based telescopes could even reveal signs of oxygen around the planets. 

Let's get these telescopes up and running, stat.