Astronomers and their incredible machines can take us out of our world and its frequent pettiness and enable us to see the big picture. A picture that grows more intriguing.
An international team of astronomers Monday announced the discovery of three potentially habitable Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light years away from earth. Forty light years in the grand scheme of the universe is essentially a few towns over, and close enough that the planets' atmosphere can be explored by telescopes. The discovery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Julien de Witt told The Boston Globe, constitutes a "paradigm shift."
More than 2,000 so-called exoplanets have been discovered outside of our solar system since 1988, but most circle giant suns that make them inhospitable for life and are too far away to be studied. A new telescope in Chile called TRAPPIST enables astronomers to locate cooler red dwarf stars that won't bake nearby planets, and TRAPPIST can also find planets circling them.
The red dwarf star located in the Aquarius constellation is about the size of the planet Jupiter. Two of the planets have zones that may be suitable for life, say the scientists, and the third may be entirely habitable. The planets "are the first places for which we could find life outside our solar system," said Michael Gillon of Belgium, the lead author of Monday's report.
That life is more likely to be at the microscopic level than at the super-intelligent and ruthless level of the alien invaders portrayed in the looming summer blockbuster "Independence Day: Resurgence." Happily for us.
Discoveries like those revealed Monday are reframing the question about the likelihood of life existing outside of Earth. What was for centuries seen as unlikely may be shifting toward likely.