- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Foreign policy could get a lot more foreign a lot sooner than we think. On Wednesday, NASA announced an unprecedented discovery of seven Earth-sized, terrestrial planets circling a star that’s in our solar system’s neighborhood. And the best part is at least three, but potentially all of them are orbiting in a habitable and liquid water-friendly zone. Where there’s a chance of water, there’s a slim chance of life.
It’s the largest batch of Earth-sized planets around a single star scientists have discovered yet. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a press release Wednesday.
Scientists only caught distant glimpses of the planets from telescopes, so it’s too soon to tell whether any of the planets harbor water — or little green men for that matter. But, hey, meeting new alien friends (or foes?) isn’t out of the range of possibilities here.
Even if the planets are lifeless, scientists say it will go a long way in helping humans understand the evolution of planets like ours. “This is a Rosetta stone with seven different languages — seven different planets that can provide us with completely different perspectives on planet formation,” MIT data scientist Julien de Wit told Nature, which first published word of the discovery alongside a NASA news conference Wednesday.
Plus, this batch of planets just sound like really cool places to visit, in part because they’re so close together. “If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky,” NASA said in its press release.
NASA released a video that explains the discovery in more detail:
Around a nearby, cold, small star we found 7 rocky Earth-size planets, all of which could have liquid water – key to life as we know it. pic.twitter.com/C2JWjDfBdK
— NASA (@NASA) February 22, 2017
Unlike a lot of issues these days, the hunt for Earth-like planets, a proverbial holy grail for astronomers, transcends national boundaries and politics. The initial discovery of the system required international collaboration, led by NASA, Belgian astronomers, and planet-hunting telescopes in Chile and Morocco, according to Nature. Scientists named the system TRAPPIST-1 after the telescope that first found the system. (For all those Belgian beer lovers out there, the telescope’s name is an homage to the trappist religious orders in Belgium, known for brewing some of the world’s best beers.)
Though TRAPPIST-1 is in our solar system’s “neighborhood,” it’s still a bit of a commute at 39 light years away. In more earthly terms, that’s 229 trillion miles.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech