Written by Christopher Bishop
NASA, in its continuing mission to find and discover signs of life may have just had a breakthrough. Recently, what is being called a treasure trove of planets was discovered orbiting a cold dwarf star in the Trappist 1 solar system (in the Aquarius constellation.) The Trappist 1 system actually derives its name from the telescope in Chile that discovered the star. Trappist is an acronym for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope. Insert Admiral Ackbar voice here. Good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what does all this possibly mean?
The 7 planets discovered are all close in size to earth, and three of them actually exist in what is known as the habitable zone. This is important as mass plays a role in development of livable conditions. Too much mass and your atmospheric pressure is too great. On the reverse side, having too little mass means less chance of the tectonic activity that is necessary to produce an adequate atmosphere for sustaining life.
The star that the seven planets surround is an ultra-cool dwarf star. No, this doesn’t mean it wears the coolest threads and always sits at the cool kids table, it simply means as stars go, it doesn’t burn near as hot as others. If that makes you question how life could be present around such a star, now might be the time to point out that our own sun is a dwarf star as well. Our sun at its photosphere (or surface,) burns at about 5800 Kelvin. The ultra-cool dwarf star in Trappist 1, we believe to have a surface temperature of approximately 2700 Kelvin.
Combining efforts with the Spitzer telescope team, scientists were able to determine the mass and size of these newly discovered seven planets. From the data that was gathered, we can know about their density. Evidence suggests that these new planets are rocky and all have the potential for liquid upon their surfaces. These 7 new planets orbit closer to their sun than Mercury does to ours. As a result of that star’s temperature being considerably less hot than ours, those planets have a far greater potential for conservation of their water supplies (since their water would not be consumed by that star’s heat.) This closer proximity to their star also means that the ambient temperature could be closer to an Earth norm on the 3 of those 7 planets which exist in the circumstellar habitable zone.
Scientists have observed these 7 marvels for roughly 500 hours thus far and have also been able to detect some interesting differences. It is believed that some of these planets may be tidally locked. This would place one section of the planet in continual day and one section in continual night. We wont know for sure but the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 may help to provide more answers. Already the Trappist, Spitzer and Hubble teams are combining efforts to discover more about these planets and determine if they truly are habitable.
With the discovery of planets possible for habitation, what does this mean for our future in space? As we draw down on space programs on a national level, many believe it will be corporate aims that will push us forward into space. Man’s continuing aim for earthly profits may be the final catalyst that pushes us out of our solar system and into the cosmos in general. At this point, we would be foolish to not further explore such opportunities. After all, with a changing environment on our own home planet it may become necessary to seek out new planets to call home. Whatever the future holds, it will surely be interesting.