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Could this seven-planet system harbor life?

A diagram shows seven exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. If the planets were transported to our own solar system, they’d all lie within Mercury’s orbit. (ESO Illustration)
A diagram shows seven exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. If the planets were transported to our own solar system, they’d all lie within Mercury’s orbit. (ESO Illustration)

A second look at an exoplanet system 39 light-years from Earth has brought a bonanza for astronomers: not two, not three, but seven alien worlds – some of which could have acceptable conditions for life.

“I think that we’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there. … Before, it was indications,” said study co-author Amaury Triaud of Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. “Now we have the right target.”

That claim is debatable, but in any case, the discovery suggests that there are even more planets out there than astronomers previously thought. Which is what astronomers have been saying repeatedly for the past decade.

“The solar system with its four (sub-)Earth-sized planets might be nothing out of the ordinary,” Ignas Snellen of the Leiden Observatory wrote in a commentary on the findings, published in this week’s issue of 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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