New Earths: Astronomers discover two more planets that could support human life

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The search for alien life is a mainstay in the study of space, and it just took a small, yet significant step forward.
Astronomers have been using the Hubble Space Telescope to study the atmospheres of nearby planets in an attempt to find ones that could support life as we know it here on Earth. Last week, in the constellation of Aquarius, the team found two likely candidates.
The two planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, are about 40 light-years from Earth and orbit a red dwarf star. It is likely that they orbit the star within its habitable zone, the area around the star where planets achieve a temperature that can support life. More importantly, they don’t appear to have the same inhospitable atmosphere that most gas planets seem to have, increasing the likelihood that life could be found there.
“The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets,” said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore.
“If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse.”
These planets were the first ones of near Earth-size to be identified in a survey of over one thousand nearby planets orbiting red dwarf stars. Once identified, a team of scientists led by Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the planets further to begin deciphering the chemical makeup of their atmospheres.
“These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life,” said de Wit.
“These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life,” says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research.”

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