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Planetarium Director Excited about Implications of NASA’s Recent Planetary Discovery

By Noell Saunders

NASA's groundbreaking discovery of seven new earth-sized planets outside our solar system has refueled public curiosity about space frontiers.

The planets are orbiting a tiny star called Trappist-1 that is about 40 light years away or 235 trillion miles from earth.

Old Dominion's Pretlow Planetarium will host a film screening of "Extrasolar Planets: Discovering New Worlds" on March 20 at 7 p.m. The film highlights NASA's new discovery.

Pretlow Planetarium Director Justin Mason, said the discovery is exciting because the planets are closer than we may realize, offering many academic opportunities.

"What's great about this system is it's close by, relatively speaking," he said. "It may be 40 light years away but in comparison to our galaxy which extends about 100,000 light years away, the planets are in our solar backyard. We will be able to study them."

This is the first time so many planets of this kind are being discovered orbiting the same star. Mason adds that this discovery contributes to a new branch of study related to "exoplanets" that's growing quickly in the world of astronomy.

"About 3,500 planets outside of the solar system have been discovered over the years and there will be more," he said. "It's largely due to better techniques for observing using bigger telescopes. We finally have the technology to do it."

Three of the seven planets are considered to be in a "habitable zone" and could potentially host liquid water, similar to earth. Scientists will launch a new telescope in 2018 called the James Webb which will potentially be able to find more information about these unknown celestial bodies.

Mason said, although the planets can't be seen, it's amazing how NASA discovered their existence.

"What scientists saw in the telescope is the star itself. As the planets go around the star, the star's light dips. There were seven periodic dips in the star showing short orbits," Mason said.

Old Dominion University's Pretlow Planetarium, founded in 1968, offers free public shows every week on Monday and Thursday at 7p.m. Other activities include laser shows, trivia contests and kitschy sci-fi movie screenings. The 40-foot domed-shaped planetarium is also used by ODU introductory astronomy classes.

In addition to the upcoming film screening, Old Dominion University's Physics Department will host an open house at the planetarium to unveil a new collection of meteorites. The event will be held on Saturday, March 18 from 1 to 5 p.m.

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