Exactly how habitable these planets might be is up for debate. Recent studies have suggested that cool, dim stars like this undergo frequent and powerful solar flares, which could be detrimental to life.
But the researchers say this particular star is fairly quiet, especially compared to a star such as Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth around which the potentially habitable world Proxima b orbits. And it’s thought that solar activity could also help replenish an atmosphere, rather than destroying it.
This star is 10 times further away than Proxima, however, so we don’t have much hope of sending a spacecraft to this system through a project like Breakthrough Starshot. “I think we are far from being able to send a robotic probe to TRAPPIST-1,” Triaud told IFLScience. But the potential for further astronomical study is huge.
Being able to discover life on one of the planets will depend on a number of factors, particularly whether they have atmospheres, and if these atmospheres allow water to remain as liquid. Any life would also have to be producing enough gas to alter the chemical composition of one of the planets’ atmospheres.
It’s easy to get excited, though, and rightly so. This is the most number of Earth-sized planets we’ve ever found in one system, and while this may turn out to be common around other stars, TRAPPIST-1 is certainly one of the closest for us to study.
Being so close to their star, it will be almost impossible to directly image these worlds. But the transit method, used to find them, will prove vital in studying them as we watch light come through their atmospheres. Keep your eyes peeled, because you can be sure there’ll be plenty more news about TRAPPIST-1 in the coming months and years.
“We’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there,” Triaud said in the briefing.