3 Earth-sized planets found orbiting nearby dwarf star

Artist’s impression of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 fro

This 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 that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (M. Kornmesser/ESO)

Astronomers searching for extraterrestrial life may need to look no farther than a small, nearby star.

That's the word Monday from a Belgian-led team that has discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star just 40 light-years away. It's the first time planets have been found around these types of stars. Scientists say it opens up new territory in the search for life beyond our home planet.

Artist’s impression of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and

The three planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (s)

Because this star is so close and so faint, astronomers can study the atmospheres of these three exoplanets and, eventually, hunt for signs of possible life.

A telescope in Chile made the discovery. Scientists already are making atmospheric observations, using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope will join in next week.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

The ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation of Aqua

This chart shows the naked eye stars visible on a clear dark night in the sprawling constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier). The position of the faint and very red ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is marked. Although it is relatively close to the Sun it is very faint and not visible in small telescopes. (ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope)

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