Belgian astrophysicists have pierced into another solar system using the TRAPPIST telescope and have come across three Earth-like planets orbiting a red dwarf star which is slightly bigger in size than Jupiter.
The planets are located close to the surface of their host star, but the red dwarf is slightly cooler than our Sun, which means the three planets could harbor favorable conditions for life on the surface.
Since the new planetary system is found just 40 light years away from Earth, the next generation of telescopes will be able to penetrate space and study their atmosphere with precision. The surprising discovery has stirred up the scientific community that sees the three planets as the best candidates for hosting life outside of our solar system.
Astronomers from the University of Liege will pursue further evidence using 4 robotic telescopes with a diameter of 1 meter which aim to study a number of 500 red dwarf stars found in the vicinity of the Sun. The project named SPECULOOS is funded in most part by Europe and will launch in 2017.
Before finding these three Earth-like planets, astronomers misjudged the potential of smaller stars and considered them unfit to sustain life on their orbiting planets. Furthermore, red dwarfs are found more frequently than Sun-like stars and are now believed to harbor opulent, complex and numerous planetary systems.
Although such stars are much frequent in the cosmos, they haven’t been studied so far. Moreover, smaller stars have a longer lifespan than their bigger counterparts because they utilize a lot less fuel. Although they provide less heat and luminosity, planets locked in orbit are bound much closer to them, and could receive all the required conditions for life to exist and flourish.
Because of the restrained amount of light they emit, it’s complicated to detect these ultra-cool red dwarfs even with the most sophisticated of infrared telescopes. If such a star is found at 100 light years from us, it’s impossible to detect it.
Therefore, there are a lot fewer known ultra-cool red dwarf stars than large stars due to the fact that we can only detect the closest ones,” said Astronomer Emmanuel Jehin of the University of Liege. “Up to now,research campaigns have concentrated on finding as many exoplanets as possible while probing large sections of the heavens without categorizing the type of stars.”
This made it possible to study thousands of stars at the same time, therefore increasing the chances of detection, but included almost no ultra-cool red dwarf stars.”
For a long time scientists believed that planets evolving around red dwarfs do not exist, and even if they did, they posed no interest because conditions around these stars were so different than those encountered around our Sun.
However, researchers from Liege have proven the contrary with their breakthrough discovery of three Earth-like planets, thus paving the way for future investigation that may yield the ever-desired result – first signs of extraterrestrial life.
In addition, the large telescopes of the future such as the JWST, NASA’s next space telescope, will have a degree of precision that will enable them to study the atmosphere of Earth-like planets and even find traces of life, but only around the nearest and smallest stars,” said Michael Gillon.
For bigger stars that are further away, we will have to wait for more powerful instruments.
Ignored for so long, planetary systems revolving around ultra-cool red dwarfs might prove to be the missing link leading to the discovery of alien life. They are far more numerous than Sun-like stars systems and can be studied more thoroughly because they emanate less heat and radiation, not to mention they are found closer to our solar system.
In total, researchers have come across over 1,000 such stars and are now planning to study 500 of them. With a first promising result, it’s hard to speculate what they may find next, but maybe NASA will clear more thoughts on this during their announcement tomorrow.