NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope helped discover seven Earth-size planets orbiting a star about 40 light-years away.
Seven Potentially Habitable Exoplanets With Liquid Water
Three of the newly discovered exoplanets are located in the habitable zone, or the area around the host star where rocky planets are most likely capable of having liquid water that can host life. NASA said that all of the seven newly discovered exoplanets could have liquid water but the chances of habitability are highest in the three worlds that are located in the habitable zone.
Scientists said that the potential habitability of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system makes them inviting targets in the hunt for alien life outside of the solar system. Because of the distance of the star system from Earth, it could take a considerable amount of time to send probes there to further investigate the new worlds.
NASA, however, has scientific instruments that can help provide more data about the new exoplanets. The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, in particular, may help reveal the presence of possible life on these planets.
James Webb Space Telescope
The Webb telescope will be a large infrared telescope that features a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) primary mirror. Set for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from the French Guiana in October 2018, the telescope will be the premier observatory that would study luminous glows after the Big Bang, the evolution of the solar system, and the formation of star systems that can support life on planets like Earth.
The telescope, which has been in the making for two decades now, is the largest space telescope assembled. Its biggest feature is a tennis court-sized sunshield that can reduce the amplitude of the sun's heat more than a million times.
The Webb telescope is set to take the reins from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Webb telescope has seven times the light-collecting capacity of Hubble and is sensitive enough to detect a single firefly 1 million kilometers, or more than 621,000 miles away.
Astronomers will use the Webb telescope, along with Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes, to conduct follow-up studies of TRAPPIST-1.
"Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets," said Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center.
Clues From Components Of The Atmosphere
With its greater sensitivity, Webb can detect the chemical fingerprints of methane, water, oxygen, ozone, and other components of the atmosphere. The observatory will also analyze the temperatures and surface pressures of the planets, which are key factors needed to evaluate their habitability.
James Webb Program Director Eric Smith said that the JWST will essentially determine the major components of a planet's atmosphere.
"We can see if it has an atmosphere similar to Earth or different from Earth," Smith said. "If it's got liquid water, it's got water in its atmosphere, it doesn't have something super poisonous in its atmosphere, that's a place that could support life, and that would be tremendously exciting."