The chances of finding life outside our solar system just went up a notch.

As you've no doubt heard by now, NASA just announced that its Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) has detected a heretofore unheard-of number of seemingly rocky, Earth-size exoplanets circling a star 39 light years from Earth. To date, space telescopes utilizing the "transit technique" (whereby a planet is detected when it passes in front of its sun, blocking out some of the light from said sun that reaches Earth) have identified nearly 3,500 planets lying in systems outside our own.

Because bigger planets block more sunlight, though, and are therefore easier to detect, the majority of exoplanets discovered so far have been gas giants unsuitable for the development of life -- or colonization. Smaller, rockier planets, lying close enough to a sun to support life, are a rarer breed. And never before has NASA found so many exoplanets so conveniently grouped all in one place for easy examination.

The seven rocky planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1.

NASA just put seven "new Earths" under its microscope -- er, telescope. Image source: NASA.

"The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1"

The seven new exoplanets circle an ultra-cool dwarf star dubbed TRAPPIST-1, located in the constellation Aquarius. From what it can observe using SST, NASA believes all seven planets are close enough to their sun that they could retain liquid water, possess atmospheres, and perhaps even support life. Three of the planets, Trappist 1e, 1f, and 1g, actually orbit within the sun's optimal "habitable zone."

Additionally, after racking up 500 hours of intense observation, SST data permitted NASA to calculate the density of six of the seven planets, confirming that they are most likely rocky (i.e., not uninhabitable "gas giants"). Each one could give future space colonists solid ground into which to drive stakes.

Little wonder, then, that NASA is calling the new collection of exoplanets "the seven wonders."

Is this the dawning of the age of Aquarius?

Of course, if colonization is the goal, mankind must first find a way to traverse the 39-light-year-long gulf between our sun and TRAPPIST-1. So how might we go about doing that?

Sadly, so far, no one has stumbled upon a warp drive capable of carrying colonists to the stars at faster-than-light speeds -- but space scientists are hard at work on finding the next best thing.

For example, two years ago, Boeing (NYSE:BA) sent its super-secret X-37B "military space shuttle" into orbit carrying a payload that included a prototype "solar sail" designed by privately held Stellar Exploration, Ecliptic Enterprises, Boreal Space, and the nonprofit Planetary Society. The 344-square-foot Mylar device might one day prove the basis for a full-size solar sail that could propel spaceships across the cosmos at speeds 10 times that of the Space Shuttle.

Meanwhile, over at Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA), they're working with NASA to develop large solar panels to collect sunlight and transform it into electricity to power spaceship ion drives. Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE:AJRD) is also developing an ion thruster system (the Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial, or "NEXT-C") that would move spaceships three times faster than current interplanetary propulsion systems. Privately held Ad Astra has an even faster nuclear-powered ion drive system in the works (the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR). And NASA itself continues to tinker with its EmDrive system, which, crazy as it sounds, seems capable of generating propulsion without any need for any physical fuel source.

Space math

All that said, getting from "here" to "there" across a 39-light-year distance is still going to take some time. Here's why:

Most everyone knows that a "light year" is the distance that a photon of light can travel in one year's time. That's not math -- that's just grammar. To put the distance from TRAPPIST-1 to Earth in context, think about it this way:

  • 1 light year is equal to 63,240 times the 93 million-mile distance from Earth to the Sun (one "astronomical unit" or "AU").
  • At an estimated top speed of 200,000 mph, a solar-sail-powered spacecraft could traverse 1 AU in about 19.4 days. (Ion drives are believed to have similar top theoretical speeds of about 200,000 mph.) Traveling one light year, however, would take 1.225 million days, or 3,357 years.
  • And traveling 39 light years -- the 2,466,350 AUs lying between Earth and TRAPPIST-1 -- would imply a total trip duration of just under 131,000 years, or about 26 times recorded human history on Earth.

So don't expect to see human colonists on TRAPPIST-1 anytime soon.

To boldly not go

But even if a mission to visit TRAPPIST-1 doesn't happen immediately, this week's exoplanet discovery still has implications for investors. For one thing, it makes even more urgent the need to put NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) into orbit. Utilizing JWST's 6.5-meter telescope lens to analyze refractions in TRAPPIST-1's light as it passes the planets, NASA should be able to determine whether any (or all) of them possess oxygen, ozone, hydrogen, methane, or other gases indicative of atmospheres -- life-sustaining atmospheres in particular.

This means more work for Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) $9.5 billion space systems division -- the company's second-most profitable division, and the one responsible for running spacecraft operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the SST. Space giants Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Harris Corp (NYSE:HRS), Orbital ATK, and Ball Aerospace (NYSE:BLL) also had a hand in JWST's construction.

JWST is scheduled to launch next year. After that, there's the planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will bring additional capabilities to bear in the search for signs of life (and once again, generate revenue for industry partners including Orbital ATK, Harris, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and of course, Lockheed).

Long story short: The discovery of TRAPPIST-1's seven exoplanets is just the beginning. Even if we can't go there just yet, we can at least look -- and there's plenty of work to go around on that front.

Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Orbital ATK. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.