With seven earth-like planets circling its orbit, Trappist-1 (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) surprised NASA and the Belgian-led research team with its existence—and its possibility to harbor life—on Wednesday, February 21.

 

Using the exoplanet-hunting Spitzer Space Telescope, the small, dim star discovered in the constellation Aquarius sits less than 40 light-years from Earth or 235 trillion miles away.

 

The TRAPPIST-1 planets are unusually close to one another. If it were our sun, all seven planets would be inside Mercury’s orbit. That’s how close they are to their star and why their orbits are so short.

 

As of press time, the planets are named by letters, “b” through “h.” The letter “A” refers to the star itself.

 

Furthermore, six of TRAPPIST-1’s “exoplanets” lie in a temperate zone where surface temperatures range from zero to 100C. At least three have the capability of watery oceans, increasing the likelihood of supporting life.

 

Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets as compared to the rocky planets in our solar system. Photo by NASA

 

In NASA’s research history, no other star system contains such a large number of Earth-sized and probably rocky planets until Trappist-1. All planets resemble the size of Earth or Venus, or slightly smaller. Because the parent star is so dim, the planets are warmed gently despite having orbits much smaller than that of Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.

 

Scientists said they need to study the atmospheres before determining whether these rocky, terrestrial planets could contain some sort of life. However, with today’s technology, no one alive right now could make it to TRAPPIST-1 in a lifetime.

 

While discussing the new discovery at a news conference on February 22,, NASA officials suggested that it would likely take at least 800,000 years to reach the TRAPPIST-1 system.