NASA scientists have discovered at least seven Earth-sized planets, each potentially capable of hosting life, orbiting a nearby star just outside the solar system.
The exciting discovery announced Wednesday has been deemed one of the first realistic opportunities to begin a search for alien life outside our system as well as the first time so many planets were discovered circling the same star.
“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question 'are we alone' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal,” associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington Thomas Zurbuchen said in a press release.
The cluster of planets orbit a dim dwarf star, just barely the size of Jupiter, called Trappist-1. The group of planets are about 40 light years away which isn't actually all that far away from Earth. The close proximity will allow the system to be studied in great detail, according to the release.
Three of the planets or exoplanets as scientist call them, are receiving just the right amount of energy from the host star, meaning oceans of water could cover their surfaces. Scientists refer to the ideal zone just around the star as "the habitable zone," sometimes jokingly called the "Goldilocks Zone," as it is just right for supporting life.
The other three bodies farther off from the star could feature smaller bodies of water and the seventh could even boast a puddle or two under ideal conditions.
Based on their densities, all of the planets are believed to be rock, but scientists said they still need to study the atmospheres before determining whether or not the planets boast water and, ultimately, whether or not they could support any type of life form.
NASA's space telescope Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails the earth as it orbits the sun, revealed the new system.
"This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations," said Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC. "Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understand of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets."