TRAPPIST-1

K. Krzyzanska '18

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On February 23rd, news of the seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system was first published in the magazine Nature. Although knowledge of the planets has existed for some years now, it was only then that news of the system was made readily available to the public.

The TRAPPIST-1 system, which was named after the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile, is centered about an “ultra-cool dwarf” (not the kind that takes you on adventures to find dragon gold). These types of stars are so relatively “cool” that planets can orbit them in close proximity and still have liquid water on their surfaces. For example, the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are almost hilariously closer to their star than even  Mercury is to our Sun (see below picture).

 

This system has seven exoplanets simply called 1b, 1c, 1d, 1e, 1f, 1g, and 1h. Each of the planets is comparable in size and mass to Earth and are apparently rocky, though their exact compositions or even whether they have water remains relatively unknown. Later missions plan to investigate these details further.

The exoplanets were discovered on account of the fact that they each transit in front of their star; that is, when they orbit, they get in our way when we try to look at their star, so we can kind of see their shadow as they pass. As their star emits infrared light the brightest, an infrared telescope called Spitzer was responsible for tracking many of these planets. Later, NASA’s Hubble telescope joined in observing four of the planets, including three planets in the habitable zone of the system.

The habitable zone of the system is merely the section of the solar system where life is most likely to exist. For example, in our Solar System, Mercury is far too close to the Sun to support life, so it’s not in the habitable zone, and Jupiter, even if it wasn’t literally just a ball of gas, would be far too cold to support life. Earth, on the other hand, is in the friendly Goldilocks zone, where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life as we know it to exist. The most important part of this “habitable zone” is that liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface. Think about it. Every living thing requires water to survive, and most living things are mostly made of water. Our best chances of finding extraterrestrial life, even if it’s just microbes, or unicellular life, rest in finding planets that have water on them.

This is partly why the TRAPPIST-1 system is causing so much excitement. Besides the fact that this is an excellent opportunity to study how other Earth-like planets behave in the Universe in general, there is always a chance that extraterrestrial life, even the simple kind, might exist there.

Unfortunately, a large problem lies in the fact that the TRAPPIST-1 system is forty light years away. In the grand scheme of the Universe, that’s small potatoes, but it is still way too far for anything from Earth, with our current technology, to even reach it for thousands of years. (So we can’t exactly send probes to it they way we’ve done with Mars). Even the information we receive from light coming from the star is forty years out of date. But again, this really isn’t all that long; at least, it seems very unlikely that in the past forty years some galaxy-conquering empire emerged without our notice (not that we can’t hope). Either way, the TRAPPIST-1 system really is an exciting discovery, if for no other reason that finding Earth-like exoplanets is not really a common occurrence, so finding seven at once seems almost miraculous.

Still, if in the next forty years or so no galactic empire comes to Earth to demand to know why we were spying on them, I’ll be a little disappointed.

 

(Interested in exoplanets? I’d recommend getting an app by NASA called “NASA’s Eyes” (link). It’s basically Google Earth but for SPACE🚀!!!)

 

References:

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around

http://www.trappist.one/#

 

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