If you’re anything like me – presently an exhausted, anxious 4th year dreading both graduation and the seemingly inevitable rise of global fascism – there will have probably been times where you’ve looked up at the night sky, filmed over with clouds and smog, and wondered if benevolent aliens would consider beaming you up and taking you to a whole new solar system. Well, thanks to the latest big NASA discovery, that’s become a slightly stronger possibility. Not necessarily the alien part, alas, but the whole new solar system filled with habitable planets part.
Last month, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope discovered a system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star. This system has been named TRAPPIST-1, and, as you might expect, is the subject of much excitement. While nowadays it actually isn’t much of a breakthrough to announce the discovery of other planets in our galaxy, the particular characteristics of the TRAPPIST-1 system are what makes this announcement so thrilling.
The star at the centre is an “ultra-cool dwarf”, much like Thorin Oakenshield. This type of star is much smaller than our own sun, but means that despite the proximity of the orbit of the planets, the majority of them are in the “habitable zone”. This refers to the distance from a parent star where a rocky planet (as in, a planet built like Earth and not a gas planet like Jupiter) is likely to have liquid water. This is what makes a planet likely to either already have life, or at least, to have the potential to be habitable.
So what are the planets in TRAPPIST-1 like? Well, aside from being in the habitable zone, they may be tidally locked. This means that one side of the planet permanently faces the sun, leaving the other side in permanent shadow. There could be extreme temperatures and weathers due to this, which might make visiting the planets a bit trickier. Due to their proximity to each other, one would be able to stand on the surface of one of the planets and be able to see the features of the others in the sky overhead. And because of the characteristics of the cool dwarf sun, the light would be dim. In fact, much may be infrared, meaning it would appear invisible to human eyesight.
But one of the most exciting aspects of this discovery has to be the idea that these planets may not only be able to support life, but may have life already. NASA plans to examine this possibility in greater depth next year, when they launch the James Webb Telescope. This telescope will, to put it very generally, be able to analyse the atmospheres of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and evaluate them in terms of how likely it is these atmospheres are conducive to living beings. So, perhaps a friendly alien crew dropping by to take you on the best road trip ever isn’t such an impossibility after all.
Don’t start packing your bags just yet though. At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the TRAPPIST-1 system is still well out of reach with our current technology. Still, it’s an extraordinary discovery. Not only do we now know that there may be planets amazingly similar to Earth in our own home galaxy, but that these planets could be our first choice when it comes to looking for other life in the universe. And there’s seven of them that might hold life, or at least the potential for it.
If you’d like to know more, the TRAPPIST-1 system even has its own stylish website at trappist.one.
[Morgaine Das Varma]