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Nearest Exoplanet With Life Could Be Only 40 Light Years Away

Three Earth-like exoplanets situated beyond our solar system might be hosting life, according to a paper published in Nature.

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The ultracold dwarf star and one of its exoplanets. Photo credits: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Three planets revolving around an icy dwarf star 40 light years away from us have been detected through Chile-based TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope by astronomers, TRAPPIST, from MIT and the University of Liège, Belgium. These ‘brand-new’ worlds are comparable to us and Venus in size. If there is life beyond our solar system, it might very well be on those planets, say the scientists.

The purpose of using TRAPPIST is to study 60 dwarf stars that are so faint that they are inconspicuous with optical telescopes. Scientists use it to observe these dwarf stars and planets around them at infrared wavelengths. So, while studying ultracool dwarf star, 2MASS J23062928-0502285, that has been renamed TRAPPIST-1 recently, they spotted exoplanets orbiting it when they found that the infrared signal of the star was fading at specific times, implying the presence of objects passing in between.

When digging further, the team found that these objects were indeed planets. The closest two to the star orbit it in 1.5 and 2.4 days. What is peculiar is that they still have only 4 and 2 times (respectively) the quantity of radiation we receive from our star. The furthest one orbits the star from 4 to 73 days; given the nature of the system, it is thought to receive even less radiation from the sun.

Their temperature should be below 125 degrees Celsius. We will soon find out about their atmosphere to evaluate their habitability, says study author Julien de Wit.

“These planets are so close, and their star so small, we can study their atmosphere and composition, and further down the road, which is within our generation, assess if they are actually inhabited,” de Wit says. “All of these things are achievable, and within reach now. This is a jackpot for the field.”

These planets are also thought to be tidally locked. They must be having permanent night and day sides, say the authors. Also, the two closest planets might be having too hot a day side, and too cold a night side, to host life. But, they might also contain a region on their west that has an adequate temperature.

This is what the researchers will attempt to find out when determining their atmospheric conditions.

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