NASA's announcement of finding seven planets surrounding a single star's habitable system is at the top of the pyramid for blowing our minds a little bit right now. Being within their star's habitable zone means they could produce water under the right conditions and where there is water, there could be life.
This Science Channel space geek duly acknowledges that is one seriously cool fact revealed to us about the universe - at least up to this minute. We now know one legitimate place where we can point our telescopes and send future probes and have a good chance of answering the age-old question of "are we alone?"
Digging a little deeper as we like to do, there are quite a few things about the TRAPPIST-1 System astronomers are reporting to be very different from our own solar system. If one day human explorers do find life there it's likely to be very different; given the range of alien life we see conjured in the movies it seems like we're getting used to that idea.
Forgetting about aliens and just focusing on the exoplanets, given all the differences we actually DO know about this system right now, the information gathered about the exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 System sends the mind spinning.
Here are some of the astounding facts we love in this story that speak to the wonders of space and the thrill we get here at Science Channel every time we are reminded of it.
- The TRAPPIST-1 System is considered relatively close to Earth at 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) away. Now consider this: Earth is only 327 light-minutes (.000624 light-years) away from Pluto.
- All seven of the exoplanets are in orbit closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun. Mercury has an elliptical orbit at 29-43 million miles around our sun. The surface of our sun hovers at 10,000?F which definitely doesn't support water, so what gives? Our sun is a dwarf star still very hot in its life cycle; the star in the TRAPPIST-1 System is an ultra-cool dwarf star likely producing less than half that heat and may be cool enough for liquid water to form.
- Here's a great way to visualize the size difference between our two suns: If they were sports balls, Earth's sun would be a basketball and TRAPPIST-1 would be a golf ball. (Check out the picture below!)
- These exoplanets are close together. Those nearest the star are about only 1.6 times the distance between the Earth and the moon, and moving outward they get slightly closer. Standing on these exoplanets and see your planetary neighbors hanging in your sky and on some perhaps close enough to see geological features.
- Despite being in the habitable zone, these would be weird worlds. These exoplanets are so close together and so close to their sun, they may be tidally locked. This means their orbit may roughly match their rotation and the same side of the planet would always face the star locking one side in perpetual day or night. This could cause extremes in temperatures and weather patterns we don't understand.
It's a breathtaking discovery to pinpoint so many exoplanets in a habitable zone and to know we are continuing on the mission to find if we have neighbors there. We're going to also acknowledge a tough fact too - there may not be life there at all. The kind we know or even the single-celled kind.
We cannot let that stop us from pursuing the unknown. From probing these exoplanets. The explorers in us absolutely revel in this discovery because once we have telescopes like the James Webb in orbit, they will have instruments sophisticated enough to read the composition of the atmospheres of these worlds to help us find life if it's there or help us understand why it isn't life there.
That's a compelling thought! Learning about other worlds could shed some light on why Earth supports the diversity of life it does and that's important too.