The recent discovery of Earth-like planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system has been a major headline for the past few weeks. A team led by Michael Gillon found three planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system in 2016, and recently reported at least 4 more which may contain the appropriate elements for life.
One of the strongest indicators that a planet could harbor life is if a planet’s environment is conducive to the formation of liquid water. Another indicator is the atmospheric composition of the planet. Stellar winds “can destroy a planet’s atmosphere if the atmosphere is too thin,” according to Theron Carmichael, an astronomy graduate student at Harvard University.
Gillon’s team will perform follow up observations with the Hubble Space Telescope along with the James Webb Space telescope after its launch in 2018. The Webb telescope has drastically improved sensitivity with respect to the Hubble telescope, which will allow scientists to determine the atmospheric composition of the newly discovered planets. Carmichael believes that “learning about these atmospheres is vital to a comprehensive understanding of these planets. This [would also expand] our recipe for what makes an Earth-sized planet habitable.” Researchers are thrilled that recent advances in observational astronomy will allow us to further demystify our universe.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Theron Carmichael, a graduate student in Astronomy at Harvard University, for insight into the importance of atmospheric makeup on exoplanet habitability.
Managing Correspondent: Aaron Aker
New York Times: “7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say”
BBC News: “Star’s seven Earth-sized worlds set record”
Science Magazine: “Seven potentially habitable Earth-size planets spied around tiny nearby star”
Nature Letter: “Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1”