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Cool 3D of our new planetary neighbours


Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA, the American space agency, has some exciting news – they’ve found new planets! While scanning space with super-powerful telescopes, they discovered seven planets orbiting around a nearby star called TRAPPIST-1. The star is named after the telescope that first discovered it, the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.

That’s one cool star!

Artist's 3D rendering of TRAPPIST-1 and the new planets

Scientist think any of these planets could have water on them, but the ones farthest from the star are more likely to have a lot of ice. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

TRAPPIST-1 is what’s called a cool star, not because it’s so awesome, but because the star is smaller and colder than our sun. It’s only about the same size as the planet Jupiter. The seven planets that orbit this dwarf star are much closer together than the ones in our solar system. If you were on one of these planets, the other planets would look bigger than our moon in the sky. Their sun probably looks more pink than yellow, so it’s a very different view! NASA also thinks that the planets don’t rotate, so that one side is always day and the other night.

Getting into the zone

The habitable planets in our solar system compared to TRAPPIST-1

You can see the Goldilocks zone for both our solar system and TRAPPIST-1 highlighted in green. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These planets are all about the same size as the Earth and, just like our planet, seem to be made mostly of rock. Even more exciting, three of these planets are in what scientists call the “Goldilocks” zone – meaning that their orbits are close enough to their sun to keep them from being too cold, but far enough away that that they’re not too hot, so the temperatures are “just right!” It may be that these planets have the right conditions to have water on them… and even life!

Are there any aliens?

An artist's rendering of the surface of one of the new planets

This artist concept allows us to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of TRAPPIST-1f, the 5th exoplanet orbiting the star. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

There’s no sign yet of alien people, or even alien plants or alien bacteria. That’s going to take a lot more studying to find out. A planet needs more than the right temperature and water to have conditions for life. It would also need an atmosphere, a magnetic field to protect it from solar flares and radiation, and be mostly safe from being hit with big meteorites – all things that our planet is lucky enough to have! But this is an important discovery, because never have so many planets similar to Earth been found at once. It makes the chances of finding life in outer space that much better!

When can we visit?

A 360-degree panorama of the surface of one of the new planets - TRAPPIST-1d. Check it out by moving the view using your mouse or your mobile device.

Unfortunately we won’t be able to visit these new planets anytime soon. The TRAPPIST-1 system is close – but in space terms close means something very different. It’s about 39 light years away, which equals 378 trillion km! There haven’t been any spacecraft invented yet that can travel at the speed of light, so even if NASA could build and launch a probe right away, it would take tens of thousands of years to get there. In the meantime, scientists will be looking closely at these planets with telescopes. And hopefully coming up with better names for them – right now the planets are called TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h. There has to be something more fun we can call them. Maybe you can work on that!