Using a robotic telescope operated by Liverpool John Moores University, Nasa has discovered SEVEN planets which are similar in size to Earth, rocky and probably have ocean.
Six of the planets lie in the habitable zone of a cool dwarf-star known as TRAPPIST-1 which is 39 lightyears from Earth.
The six habitable planets have a surface temperature ranging from zero to 100 degrees celsius – the temperature region which is perfect for supporting life.
Of these six, at least three of the planets have an ocean – and scientists state that anywhere on Earth you find water, you are likely to find life, which is why astronomers look for these on other planets.
Nasa has found planets that could support life
The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second earth is not just a matter of if but when
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second earth is not just a matter of if but when.
“Are we alone out there, we are making a leap forward to answering this question.”
Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC, Pasadena, California, said: “This is the most exciting discovery we have had yet with the Spitzer telescope and its 14 years of operation.
”Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”
Mr Zurbuchen added: “This discovery 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.”
The exciting find, which is the largest amount of Earth-like planets in one star system, was made by the Liverpool Telescope, which is actually based on La Palma in the Canary Islands, and backed up by observations from Nasa's orbiting Spitzer telescope.
The planets are orbiting a cool dwarf-star
The exoplanets are 39 lightyears away
Three planets classified as TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g orbit in the "habitable" or "Goldilocks" zone where temperatures are not too hot or cold to permit surface oceans of liquid water.
Nasa said it would take a jet plane 44 million years to reach the new planets which are 39 light years away or 235 trillion miles.
British astronomer Dr Chris Copperwheat, from Liverpool John Moores University, who co-led the international team, believes that this could be the breakthrough that astronomers have needed in the search for alien life.
Dr Copperwheat said: "The discovery of multiple rocky planets with surface temperatures which allow for liquid water make this amazing system an exciting future target in the search for life.
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"As a robotic telescope and the largest in the world, the Liverpool telescope is very sensitive to the small, less-than-1 per cent dips in brightness through which the planets are discovered.
“It's all automated, it's flexible and fast, and so is ideal for this sort of time critical work."
The planets were discovered by astronomers observing TRAPPIST-1 and using the “transit” method, which looks for dimming in front of a passing star.
Nikole Lewis, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said: “This is so exciting, we can start to begin this journey and understand what the air is like on rocky planets outside of our solar system.”
Nasa said the investigation "will go on for many generations".
— NASA (@NASA) February 22, 2017
Michael Gillon, astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium, said: “Three of the planets are in the so-called Goldilocks zones where liquid water could exist.”
“We have preliminary measurements for masses of six of them and for one of them it strongly suggests a water-rich composition which is very existing as it is in the habitable zone.”
TRAPPIST-1, in the constellation Aqaurius, is a small star with 8 per cent the mass of the sun and only slightly bigger than the planet Jupiter.
Dr Gillon added: ”This is an amazing planetary system – not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth."
Thomas Zurbuchen said finding a second Earth is a matter of time
Scientists say future telescopes may be strong enough to detect signs of life on the exoplanets
Astronomers expect such dim red dwarf stars to host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets.
Future telescopes, including the the European Extremely Large Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope, may be powerful enough to detect markers of life such as oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Dr Emmanuel Jehin, another member of the Liege team, said: "We will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds."
The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system.