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Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life
This image was taken in 2011 over Jökulsárlón, the largest glacial lake in Iceland. The photographer combined six exposures to capture two green auroral rings and their reflections off the lake. NASA / Stephane Vetter / TWAN / Nuits sacrees

By Dirk Lorenzen

2020 will be the year of Mars. The red planet will approach Earth in early October to within 62 million kilometers. Four space agencies are set to take advantage of this close encounter and send spacecraft to Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its ExoMars rover on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome. ExoMars is set to land on the surface, dig into the soil and look for traces of past life. They will be looking for possible living microbes about half a meter below the Martian surface. Above it, harmful cosmic radiation makes life as we know it impossible.

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A Soyouz rocket lift-off from Europe's launchpad in Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 18 with Europe's CHEOPS planet-hunting satellite on board. JODY AMIET / AFP / Getty Images

By Matthias Klaus

The CHEOPS mission blasted off from Kourou, French Guiana atop a Russian Soyuz rocket on Wednesday. The launch came 24 hours after a first attempt was delayed shortly before liftoff because of a software problem in the upper stage of the rocket.

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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Kelly Kizer Whitt

Venus is often mistaken for a plane because of its brilliance; it shines more brightly than all the other planets because of its location close to Earth and its thick, reflective clouds. The common phrase "the evening star" usually doesn't refer to a star at all; it's Venus. When it stands alone in the west after sunset, as it has over the past month, Venus is the first bright object to burst through the fading twilight.

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This artist's concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets' diameters, masses and distances from the host star. Photo credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

By Andrea Germanos

While the Trump administration continues to wage a war on science, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Wednesday shared "remarkable" findings: seven 'Earthlike' planets in the habitable zone of a single star "relatively close" to the planet we call home.

"This is an amazing discovery," said Yale University astronomy Prof. Deborah Fischer to MSNBC. "On a scale of one-to-ten, this is off the scale. This is jaw-droppingly exciting," she added.

Located in the constellation Aquarius and about 40 light-years away from Earth, these rocky exoplanets (so called because they're outside our solar system) could all potentially hold water. They are around the TRAPPIST-1 star, which is slightly larger than Jupiter. It's an "ultracool dwarf" star, which means, according to a NASA press statement, that it is "so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system."

Three of the exoplanets were discovered using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile in 2016, with the additional four being discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The findings were also laid out Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star," said Michaël Gillon, lead study author and astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium.

"This discovery," added Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC, "could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life."

"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," Zurbuchen said.

The TRAPPIST-1 website offers more details on the newly discovered system and NASA Spitzer has this new video about how it came together:

Furthering the public dissemination of the information, a group of NASA scientists and exoplanet experts took part Wednesday in a Reddit AMA, where they provided more details on the discovery and next steps.

"[T]o find, identify and announce" an oxygen-rich atmosphere is hopefully just years away, said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT. Natalie Batalha, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center expected that "the surface gravity of most of these planets is similar to that on Earth" and said that being able to see things like potential vegetation or surface features like continents would require technology beyond that held by NASA's James Webb Telescope, which launches in 2018.

Still as NASA explained, it "will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets' temperatures and surface pressures–key factors in assessing their habitability."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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