Artist’s impression of the multiplanetary system of planets orbiting GJ 887. Credit: Mark Garlick

A small star only 11 light-years from our solar system may play host to a clutch of planets, one of which might be suitable for life.

Why it matters: Because this star and its planets are relatively nearby, they're great candidates for follow-up studies that could one day allow scientists to peer into their atmospheres and figure out exactly what they're made of.

What they found: The star — named GJ 887 — is orbited by at least two planets that are just slightly larger than Earth, according to a new study in the journal Science.

  • A possible third world may orbit the star every 50 days and could be in its "habitable zone," the orbit around a star where a planet could support liquid water, potentially upping the odds for life.
  • However, follow-up studies need to confirm there is, in fact, a third promising planet orbiting the star.
  • The study's authors were able to detect the planets' small gravitational tugs on their star as they observed the star over the course of three months.

The intrigue: The scientists behind the study were also surprised that the relatively bright red dwarf star is quiet.

  • Usually, exoplanets — worlds orbiting stars other than the Sun — circling red dwarfs aren't thought to be good candidates to host life because these stars, which are smaller than the Sun, tend to shoot out massive, irradiating flares.
  • This star, however, seems to be pretty even-keeled.
  • "It's quiet in the sense that it doesn't have these dark star spots like we see on the Sun, or it doesn't have these very energetic outbursts that we also see on the Sun," Sandra Jeffers, one of the authors of the new study told Axios.

Yes, but: While the star seems quiet now, it may have been active in the past when it was younger, potentially hurting the odds that the planets around the star could host life.

What's next: Scientists are on the verge of having the tools they need to study worlds orbiting distant stars more thoroughly than they have in the past.

  • The James Webb Space Telescope — expected to launch sometime next year — will be able to investigate the compositions of atmospheres of some alien planets, giving scientists a better sense of what types of worlds are habitable.
  • "We've really started valuing these bright systems so that we can do all of this much more detailed analysis of the atmospheres of these planets," exoplanet researcher Jessie Christiansen, who wasn't affiliated with the study, told Axios.

The bottom line: The planets surround GJ 887 are further proof that our galaxy is teeming with worlds circling nearby and distant stars.

  • "All of the nearby stars to us have got planets around them," Christiansen said.

Go deeper

Jul 7, 2020 - Science

The race to find Planet X heats up

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Teams of scientists are vying to be the first to spot a large, hypothetical planet that might be lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system.

Why it matters: Astronomers have found thousands of planets orbiting other stars, but the hunt for this possible planet orbiting our own Sun — called Planet X or Planet 9 by some — is showing just how little we know about our solar system.

Competitors ready to pounce on TikTok bans

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Growing security and privacy concerns over Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok have given a lift to alternatives like Byte and Dubsmash, which have seen spikes in downloads from smartphone users recently, according to data from SensorTower.

Why it matters: If TikTok's meteoric rise in popularity among U.S. youth gets slowed by rising tensions with China, or ended by a threatened ban by the Trump administration, American teens will still have to get their hits of meme-laden video somewhere.

31 mins ago - Technology

U.S. pushes homegrown drone industry amid China battle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Alarmed at the prospect of relying on Chinese-made drones for public safety and monitoring critical industries, U.S. investors and the federal government are newly backing a domestic drone industry of hardware and software companies.

The big picture: The moves come as the industry continues to be led by DJI, a Chinese hardware maker — and as concerns grow both in China and the U.S. about reliance on the other country's technology.