Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies have high hopes for the field of extra-solar planet research. In the past decade, the number of known exoplanets has reached just shy of 4000, and many more are expected to be found once next-generations telescopes are put into service. And with so many exoplanets to study, research goals have slowly shifted away from the process of discovery and towards characterization.
Since the Kepler Space Telescope was launched into space, the number of known planets beyond our Solar System (exoplanets) has grown exponentially. At present, 3,917 planets have been confirmed in 2,918 star systems, while 3,368 await confirmation. Of these, about 50 orbit within their star’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) , the distance at which liquid water can exist on a planets’ surface.
70,000 years ago, our keen-eyed ancestors may have noticed something in the sky: a red dwarf star that came as close as 1 light year to our Sun. They would’ve missed the red dwarf’s small, dim companion—a brown dwarf—and in any case they would’ve quickly returned to their hunting and gathering. But that star’s visit to our Solar System had an impact astronomers can still see today.
Last year, NASA astronomers announced the discovery of a solar system with seven Earth-like planets. The TRAPPIST-1 system marked not only the highest number of Earth-like planets ever found around a star, but also the highest number in the “habitable zone,” a region where temperatures aren’t so extreme as to extinguish the planets’ chances of supporting life.
The extra-solar planet known as Proxima b has occupied a special place in the public mind ever since its existence was announced in August of 2016. As the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, its discovery has raised questions about the possibility of exploring it in the not-too-distant future. And even more tantalizing are the questions relating to its potential habitability.
In what is surely the biggest news since the hunt for exoplanets began, NASA announced today the discovery of a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Discovered by a team of astronomers using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope, this find is especially exciting since all of these planets are believed to be Earth-sized and terrestrial (i.e. rocky).
The search for life beyond Earth starts in habitable zones, the regions around stars where conditions could potentially allow liquid water – which is essential for life as we know it – to pool on a planet’s surface. New NASA research suggests some of these zones might not actually be able to support life due to frequent stellar eruptions – which spew huge amounts of stellar material and radiation out into space – from young red dwarf stars.
We live on a rocky little planet perfectly situated around a middle-aged G2 spectral type yellow star. In many ways, a very boring and ordinary star, but with an extraordinary difference: it has at least one habitable planet. And, in fact, one inhabited world with the right temperature and ratio of water to land to enable and maintain life.
Globular star clusters are amazing in almost every way. They’re densely packed, holding a million stars in a ball only about 100 light-years across on average. They’re old, dating back almost to the birth of the Milky Way. And according to new research, they also could be extraordinarily good places to look for space-faring civilizations.
The news that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is to receive increased funding and data through the $100m (£64m) Breakthrough Listen project is welcome news for astrobiologists like myself. Launched by Stephen Hawking, it particularly helps to allay growing concerns in the field about having too narrow a focus in our search for life in the universe.