In a live-stream, a panel of NASA scientists announced the existence of seven planets around a dwarf star and thus continues the search for life beyond Earth.
[Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech]
The dwarf star, named Trappist-1 is a small colder red dwarf. The seven planets are relatively close together when compared with those in our solar system. Even the furthest planet in the system only takes roughly 12 days for an orbit.
Three of these planets are located in the habitable zone around the Trappist-1 star. Trappist-1E offers similar temperatures to Earth’s. Trappist-1F has a nine-day orbit and gets the same amount of sun as Mars. Trappist-1G is the largest planet in the habitable zone with a radius 13 percent larger than Earth’s. It also gets the same amount of starlight as Mars and our asteroid belt.
This information comes largely from the Spitzer Space Telescope.
The panelists reporting their findings are:
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
Michael Gillon, astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium
Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC, Pasadena, California
Nikole Lewis, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
[Image Source: NASA TV Public-Education]
For comparison, the team juxtaposed a basketball and a golf ball to show the difference between our sun and Trappist-1. The Spitzer has helped estimate the masses of each planet, and one of the three planets has been estimated so precisely that the team can estimate whether or not it would hold.
“This might be the most exciting discovery we’ve had with Spitzer in its 14 year operation,” said Sean Carey, Manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena California.
When asked about tides on the habitable planets. the panelists said the tight proximity between planets would lead to tidal activity rather than a planet/moon relationship like we’ve seen in our solar system.
Lewis noted that she and her team were able to use transmission spectroscopy to determine the atmospheric composition of these exoplanets – or at least estimate their makeups. The Hubble telescope was able to probe the closest two planets to determine they didn’t fall in the habitable zone.
When asked how long it would take to travel to these planets, Lewis chuckled and said “At light speed, it would only take about 39 years. But with a jet plane? It would be slightly longer – maybe 44 million years or so.”
Travel poster designed to celebrate the Trappist-1 findings [Image Source: NASA TV Public-Education]
One thing was clear by the end of the live stream event: we’re probably not going to buy a ticket to Trappist-1F anytime soon. However, all the panelists were visibly excited to share their findings.
“With this discovery, we’ve made a giant accelerated leap forward in finding life in other inhabitable zone,” said Seager. She compared finding the three new habitable zone planets to Goldilocks having sisters that helped her get something ‘just right.’
“The Trappist-1 system has really captured our imaginations,” Seager said.
The panel even discussed putting more telescopes onto the Trappist-1 system, especially the James Webb space telescope set to launch next year.
Zurbuchen said “This research is in its gold rush phase.” He said he’s excited by the technology finally catching up with the imaginations of space explorers.
“I believe nature to be far more beautiful than the renderings we showed you,” he said. “How do we open up our lens and see these things?”