Astronomers trying to find life beyond our solar system may have to search no further than the usual small, feeble nearby star.
A Belgian-directed team reported that they found three Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star less than 40 light-years away. It is the first time planets are discovered around such a star — and it opens up new, abundant land in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Because this star is faint and so close, astronomers can analyze the atmospheres of these three temperate exoplanets and, eventually, search for signs of potential life. They are already making atmospheric observations, actually, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Next week will be joined in by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Larger, brighter stars have been targeted by other exoplanet investigations but the starlight in these instances can be so glowing that it washes out the signatures of planets.
University of Liege astronomers in Belgium — lead study writers Michael Gillon and Emmanuel Jehin — constructed the Trappist telescope to find 60 of the closest ultra-cool dwarf stars. The high-risk attempt paid off, de Wit noted in a e-mail.