It’s a TRAPPIST-1!

It has been a week of star-studded news. Yes, there was that insane debacle at last night’s Academy Awards that saw the wildest finish to any Oscars presentation when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture. Actually, the wrong movie has been announced as Best Picture lots of times, as I discussed a few years ago, but in this case the movie that official won the award was only announced after the award had already been presented to the producers of another movie who were halfway through their acceptance speeches! For a fun and thorough wrap-up of all the action, check out the annual Screen Junkies Grouchies award show.

As bonkers as that was, and as interesting as I am in the goings-on of the film world, I am much more intrigued by what’s happening with another world. Seven, in fact. Moonlight is the least of my concerns when starlight and planetary transits creating shadows that our space telescopes can see are occurring.

For decades, numerous astronomers have been tirelessly searching for other worlds like ours throughout the universe. These exoplanets as they are called when they are outside of our solar system, are the key to further observing what the most common planets are like and how ours stacks up in the grand cosmic scene. Additionally, the search for Earth-like worlds give us a greater look at areas that may have the right pieces to harbor life. This can mean that we may discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on one of these worlds, and/or find another world suitable for future human habitation.

Last week, NASA revealed that such a solar system had been found with not one, but seven – yes, seven! – Earth-like planets orbiting around a small star. Three of the seven exoplanets are within the habitable zone for humans, also known as the Goldilocks Zone because its conditions are not too hot or cold, but just right for humans to live within. Most exciting of all though, this star system is but 12 parsecs, or about 39 lightyears away! Now while this is about 250 trillion with a “T” miles away from us, in relation to the massive scope of the universe as we know it, this is extremely close. A lightyear is as its name implies, the unit of distance that it takes light to travel in the span of one year. Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the observable universe, clocking in at around 299,792,458 meters per second, or 671 million with an “M” miles per hour. That’s pretty darn quick, and we couldn’t hope to match it with our current technology, and probably never will manufacture a real-life Millennium Falcon to exceed it, but it is very much within the realm of possibility for a spacecraft that can manage one-fifth (1/5) the speed of light to be made. In fact, such technology is currently being worked on.

Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Make no mistake, it will take some time for us to reach the recently discovered star, called TRAPPIST-1 after the terrestrial telescope in Chile that first found it in the constellation Aquarius. However, the great potential that this system and the exoplanets within it hold for the future of our species is tremendously exciting. I won’t get to go there in my lifetime, but maybe the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren I’m not planning on having will start to see humans making their way toward landing on the TRAPPIST exoplanets, perhaps with the chance to colonize them. Much sooner within my lifetime, as in the next few years, we will probably know what the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres are made of and whether or not they contain oxygen, a biological marker that heralds the presence of living organisms. It at least seems likely that the exoplanets, which we know are rocky like our world and not gaseous like Jupiter, contain water, the liquid form of which is the necessary component to life, as you may have heard before. Who knows? Perhaps we may even have definitive proof of life outside of Earth unearthed within our remaining spins around the star we know and love best. Hopefully it’s less hostile than what Private Hudson experienced on LV-426. Game over, man! Rest in peace, Bill.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn much more about the TRAPPIST-1 system than I can tell you then check out the ever reliable NASA webpage for continuing updates, as well as the beautiful and information-filled TRAPPIST-1 site found here. There is a great set of pages that detail everything from what we know of each exoplanet so far, and the timeline of the discovery. Be sure to check out the cute and colorful comic on the “Stories” page that features an astronomer rabbit explaining the find to her panda pal in terms that make it accessible (and fun) for us all. Send any questions or comments my way to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make your way back here in a little less than one TRAPPIST-1f year (nine days!) for more fun and informative stuff.

To TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond!

Alex

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