NASA watches 3 planets orbiting a distant dwarf

Image: TRAPPIST-1 planet
An artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. (Credit: ESO)

Three potentially habitable and definitely weird planets have been detected orbiting an ultracool dwarf star that’s 40 light-years away from Earth. They’re too far to visit anytime soon, but close enough to spark interest from NASA and astrobiologists who want to study the conditions under which life could arise.

“Why are we trying to detect Earthlike planets around the smallest and coolest stars in the solar neighborhood? The reason is simple: Systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology,” Michaël Gillon, an astronomer from the University of Liège in Belgium, said in a news release from the European Southern Observatory. “So if we want to find life elsewhere in the universe, this is where we should start to look.”

The discoveries are detailed in a study published today by the journal Nature.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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