NASA has stunned the world by announcing seven planets have been found in a solar system 40 light years away that might have water and oxygen that support life.
Forgetting the notion of what sort of life these distance planets might give a home to, how far is 40 light years away?
In astronomical terms, it’s just a hop and a skip when compared to the vast distances between the Earth and distant stars.
The closest star, Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light years from Earth, so the new star Trappist-1 and the seven plants in orbit that may support life are 10 times further.
A light year is not a unit of time, but of distance and represents how far light can travel in a year, which is around 6 trillion miles.
How long to travel 40 light years?
Light takes four years to reach Earth from Alpha Centauri, so that’s a trip lasting 40 years for light from Trappist-1 coming to Earth.
Scaling the distance between Earth and the Sun as an inch, Alpha Centauri is 4.4 miles away and Trappist-1 40 miles away.
Travelling to Trappist-1 from Earth would take around 175,000 years.
And what sort of life could humans expect to find?
Assuming there is water and oxygen on these habitable planets, the life forms could be different from ours.
The final frontier
Gravity, light, environment and food would all have a hand in evolution. The system is also thought to be younger than ours, meaning life could be present but at a different stage to that on Earth.
Unfortunately, the likelihood is that we might never know our nearest neighbours because neither of us has the technology to communicate.
Scientists led by NASA still have a lot of questions to answer about the possibility of life on other planets.
The problem is distance. The stars and planets are so far away from each other, without huge advances in technology, a creeping colonisation within our solar system looks like the human limit on travelling to the stars.
Despite the hope of science fiction authors, it really does look like space is the final frontier for humans, and one that cannot be bridged.