Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vatican astronomers laud exoplanet discoveries

TRAPPIST-1Vatican astronomers have applauded the discovery of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1 that's just 40 light years away.

Three of the planets, known as exoplanets since they are outside our solar system, are located in the so-called "habitable" zone, a kind of "Goldilocks" sweet spot in that their distance from the sun makes them not too hot, not too cold, but just right for having liquid water – an essential ingredient for life.

"The discovery is important because, to date, it has revealed the highest number of Earth-sized planets revolving around a single parent star," US Jesuit Father David Brown told Catholic News Service.

"Depending on different factors, all of the planets could potentially harbour conditions for the possible existence of life on them," he said.

He said scientists and astronomers will now want to use newer and more powerful telescopes to learn more about the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

The name TRAPPIST is an acronym for the "Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope", which is located in Chile, but also reflects the exploration project's Belgian roots by honouring Belgium's famous Trappist beers, made by Trappist monks.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, said the question of life beyond Earth is "a question of faith".

While there is no definitive proof that extra-terrestrial life exists, "our faith in the fact that life exists is strong enough to make us willing to make an effort in looking for it," he said in an article in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

Brother Consolmagno, a planetary scientist, told the Italian bishops' news agency, SIR, that when it comes to discoveries about the universe, he always expects them to be surprising.

"God speaks to us through what he has created," he said, and creation has been created "by a God of love, joy and surprises".