Should we be excited about the Trappist-1 system?

Should we be excited about the Trappist-1 system?

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Image: Wiki Commons

It is very unlikely that any of us will be moving to the Trappist-1 system within our lifetime. Situated 39 light years away, the seven earth-sized planets announced by Nasa last week would take a standard jet plane around forty-four million years to get to.

“Nasa suggested that potential signs of life could be detected within the next decade.”

This fact should not, however, lessen the importance or significance of the discoveries reaped from six years of study of the dwarf star,

. Of the seven rocky planets orbiting it, at least three are in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” for the development of life. All seven of them could potentially contain water.

With the relative proximity of the system—the Milky Way galaxy is thought to be around one hundred thousand light years from end to end—it is therefore possible for us to study its planets from earth. This could be an enormously influential in our search for life beyond our solar system. To aid investigation of the planets’ atmospheres, greenhouse gases, and surface temperatures, new equipment is currently being developed—such as the James Webb Space Telescope. Nasa suggested that potential signs of life could be detected within the next decade.

Image: Wikimedia.org

This is the first time that so many potentially habitable planets have been found around the same star. After three planets were identified in May 2016, the Spitzer Space Telescope, along with several ground-based instruments, later confirmed a total of seven exoplanets around the red dwarf.  The “transit” method used by these devices involves looking for regular dips in detected light caused by the planets’ orbits.

According to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate, the most significant aspect of the discovery is that it suggests that “finding a second earth is not just a matter of it, but when.”

With the longest orbital period of the Trappist-1 planets being just twenty days, life on this system would certainly be very strange—just imagine having a new year every two or three weeks! The view from the surface of any of these planets is probably even more alarming. Due to their proximity, neighbouring planets would easily be observable to the naked eye, appearing just as our moon does from earth.

Furthermore, it is likely that most of the planets are tidally locked—meaning that one side is constantly facing the host star and the other is constantly in shadow. While it is a commonly known fact that here in Britain that we have the gloomiest weather on Earth, living in permanent shadow is probably somewhat worse.

Compared to our sun, Trappist-1 is very young, with an estimated age of around five hundred million years. As a red dwarf, it is also burns through hydrogen much more slowly; Michaël Gillon, principal investigator of Trappist at the University of Liège, says that it will live for “one thousand billion years.”

Following the announcement, Nasa tweeted the hashtag #7NamesFor7NewPlanets—calling on the internet for help naming the new discoveries. Popular suggestions provided by Twitter users included the names of the seven dwarfs in the fairy-tale Snow White, as well as characters from the TV show Friends.

Trappist-1 itself was named after a Belgian operated telescope in Chile, which played a leading role in detecting the system.

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