Well, here I go again talking about space. The seemingly endless cosmos has given me an equally vast number of topics to discuss, and this is probably the biggest.
In the last few decades, astronomers have been able to identify over 4,600 exoplanets, some which continually eek closer to having some recognizable comparison with Earth. A couple weeks ago, NASA announced the discovery of TRAPPIST-1, a relatively close star (39 light years) that provides for an amazing planetary system with seven earth-like planets in the habitable zone. This treasure trove of planets champions the search for extraterrestrial life with incredible news ― each of the planets could have water, and under the right atmospheric conditions, three of them could harbor aliens, whether in the form of fancy Star Trek depictions or unsurprising single-celled organisms.
At about 40 light years from earth, TRAPPIST-1 is what NASA is calling an “ultra cool dwarf star”. Interestingly, at only 8% of the mass of our sun, the star puts out significantly less heat and energy, but will last tremendously long (nearly five trillion years).
Three of the planets surrounding the star first came to our attention in 2016, and further examination, using stronger telescopes (the Spitzer and Hubble), revealed the innards of the planetary system, which features seven rocky worlds, all in the same size and mass range as that of Earth.
The Hubble is currently being used to scan the atmospheres for hydrogen gas, and since none has been found yet it most likely means that they contain terrains with liquid water on the surface. The Hubble will eventually look for signs of water and methane, but as we know, we’ll have to wait for the James Webb to take command. The Hubble’s limitations become strikingly clear in this case, and when the JWT launches in 2018, we’ll have a much better look at the system. More often than not, exploratory efforts are precluded by the technology of our time, and what follows is a direct effort to advance NASA’s arsenal of tools so that planetary systems like TRAPPIST-1 receive the scrutiny they deserve.
Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center, called this “the most exciting result [he’s] seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations.” Several scholars and astronomers alike echo Carey’s sentiment; the potential that this planetary system presents is unprecedented.
Constrained by the limitations of current optics and positioning technology, we are led to surmise about TRAPPIST-1’s future. We believe that what lies beyond is an exciting collection of planets so similar to those which orbit our sun, and the possibility of such parallel worlds 235 trillion miles away is mind-boggling.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is an eerie, yet awe-inspiring look into the profundity of the cosmos. To find patterns so far away is a sublime discovery that leaves us begging for signs of extraterrestrial life, and with continued advancements, I’m left to think the very same.