Space is big. Really really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is... so it's a tribute to the incredibly clever science that exoplanet hunters use that after just a year of searching, they've turned up seven worlds orbiting alien stars that could possibly support life. They're not even too far away--all seven are within our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
The search is part of the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, a multinational effort that uses space databases from many different sources to try to detect alien planets around alien stars that could be the home to, well, aliens. The effort has been underway for a year now, and to celebrate the anniversary the team has announced its discovery of these seven planets. According to the team, finding seven likely candidates in just the HEC's first year is an incredible achievement that beat their expectations.
There are a few riders to this news, of course. The alien planets are usually indirectly detected by observing wobbles in the rotation of a distant star. Scientists then make calculations about the size and power of the star, and the orbit of the exoplanet, and then determine what the planet's environment may be like. This is a science-founded guess based on categories like the Earth Similarity Index, and essentially assumes a planet that's not too dissimilar from Earth in size, orbiting a star with roughly the same heat and light output as our Sun could have liquid water on its surface, and thus support life. Though not necessarily life as we know it.
Such exoplanets are said to orbit the "Goldilocks zone" of a star. And though this all sounds fantastical, it demonstrates the power of our space observation technology, advances in maths and physics, and may one day help answer one of humankind's biggest philosophical questions: Are we alone?
[Image credit: Artist impression of one of the 7 planets, Gliese 667Cc by ESO/L. Calçada]