Featured Image for NASA’s big announcement: 7 earth-sized planets orbiting nearby star

NASA’s big announcement: 7 earth-sized planets orbiting nearby star

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration or, as everyone knows it, NASA will host a live conference, which will be streamed for Australians on Wednesday 23 February 2017.

The conference is titled ‘Beyond Our Solar System’ and NASA has given little away. Will they be speaking about alien life forms? Increased radiation on Earth?

It’s unlikely. The ‘Beyond Our Solar System’ talk is expected to reveal the discovery of a new exoplanet which can host life.

How can Australians watch?

The NASA conference will air live in America on Wednesday 22 February 1PM EST.

But Australians who want to watch the conference will have to tune in at 6AM AEDT.

The conference will be streamed via NASA TV, which we’ve embedded below. Techly will be updating you with NASA’s findings as they are revealed.

LIVE UPDATES: What are the findings?

Global audiences can submit a question via the hashtag #askNASA. At 8AM AEDT, a Reddit AMA will take all questions.

The NASA live stream has just concluded and has been accompanied by a study published in the journal Nature.

It’s exciting news – astronomers have found at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the same star around 40 light years away.

The star is the in the TRAPPIST-1 system, and three of those seven planets are in what’s known as the “Goldilocks Zone”.

Named after the famous story, the Goldilocks Zone refers to a habitable zone around a star where the temperature is not too hot or not too cold but just right for liquid water to exist on a planet.

According to the study, all of the seven exoplanets may be capable of supporting life.

Estimates of the planets’ mass indicate that they are rocky planets similar to our own, as opposed to the gaseous type planets found in our solar system.

Of the three in the Goldilocks Zone, the researchers believe that TRAPPIST-1f is the best candidate for supporting life.

“Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today,” study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a statement.

TRAPPIST-1, the star these seven planets orbit, is an “ultracool dwarf” star with a temperature of 2300 degrees which is less than half of the sun. The radius of TRAPPIST-1 is slightly larger than Jupiter’s.

It is likely that the three inner planets (named b,c and d) have uninhabitable surfaces similar to Venus with very high temperatures.

The Goldilocks Zone planets are named e, f and g. Starting from b and moving out, the planets have orbits ranging from one and a half to nearly 13 Earth days, giving all the planets comparatively shorter years than ours. The orbit of h is unknown at this point and it is almost definitely too cold to support life.

The star TRAPPIST-1 gets its name from the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanestesImals Small Telescope) used to observe its starlight and changes in brightness.

By observing how the pattern of TRAPPIST-1’s starlight changed, the researchers were able to identify the presence of the seven exoplanets.

Although 40 light years may sound close, it would take us millions of years to get there with our current technology. For now, NASA will continue to study and observe TRAPPIST-1.

The Reddit AMA with the NASA scientists behind the discovery is currently ongoing.

Here are some of the top questions and answers:

Reddit user AGallagher410 asked, “What is the protocol if you do find any signs of life on any of the exoplanets?”

Answer: We do not yet have a protocol. Most likely we will make a tentative discovery, that will take longer to confirm.

Reddit user mzoltek asked, “My question is simple… What’s next? I mean I’m sure all the excitement of discovering and announcing this find is still fresh but what are the next steps involved in finding out more about this discovery? What information do you think is “discoverable” about this system in the near future?”

Answer: NASA’s Kepler/K2 is currently observing TRAPPIST-1! The spacecraft has been monitoring the brightness of the star since December 15, 2016 and will continue to do so until March 04, 2017. That’s over 70 days of data. Scientists will be able to define the orbital period of the 7th planet. They may also be able to see a turnover (or reversal) in the transit timing variations which will allow scientists to refine the planet mass estimates. Perhaps we’ll even find additional transiting planets. The raw data will be placed in the public archive immediately after the observing campaign finishes. It should be available to community by March 6th. This is one of the many ways that scientists will be studying the TRAPPIST-1 system. – Natalie Batalha, Kepler Project Scientist.

Reddit user jszko asked, “How long would it take with current technology to get to this solar system? Assuming it’s a good few hundred years, what is the next step in finding out what’s going on there?”

Answer: No technology yet to get to this new planetary system. Fledgeling efforts, however, are underway to consider how to send tiny spacecraft to the nearest star which has one known planet.

Who were the presenters?

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters
  • Michaël Gillon, astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium
  • Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena
  • Nikole Lewis, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
  • Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • About the author

    Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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