Is there life beyond our solar system? If there is, our best bet for finding it may lie in three nearby, Earth-like exoplanets.

An international team of scientists said Monday they had discovered a trio of Earth-like planets that are the best bet so far for finding life outside our solar system.

The scientists discovered the planets using TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope), a 60-centimeter telescope operated by the University of Liège, based in Chile. TRAPPIST is designed to focus on 60 nearby dwarf stars — very small, cool stars that are so faint they are invisible to optical telescopes. Belgian scientists designed TRAPPIST to monitor dwarf stars at infrared wavelengths and search for planets around them.

“This is the first opportunity to find chemical traces of life outside our solar system,” said lead author Michael Gillon, an astrophysicist at the University of Liege in Belgium.

All three planets had the “winning combination” of being similar in size to Earth, “potentially habitable” and close enough so their atmospheres can be analysed with current technology, he told AFP.

The find opens up a whole new “hunting ground” for habitable planets, he added.

Gillon and colleagues calibrated a 60-centimetre (23.5-inch) telescope in Chile, known as TRAPPIST, to track several dozen dwarf stars neither big nor hot enough to be visible with optical telescopes.

“Now we have to investigate if they’re habitable,” de Wit says. “We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life. We have facilities all over the globe and in space that are helping us, working from UV to radio, in all different wavelengths to tell us everything we want to know about this system. So many people will get to play with this [system].”
This research was funded, in part, by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research, the European Research Council, and NASA.