Are We Alone? Trappist-1 Could Hold the Answer

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On Wednesday, February 22nd, NASA discovered seven new Earth-like planets outside of our solar system. At about 40 light years (235 trillion miles) away from Earth, these planets are relatively close to us compared to the others that have been recently discovered. Any planets that are located outside of our solar system are called exoplanets. In the past two decades, NASA has discovered thousands of exoplanets. Although NASA tends to use the Kepler space telescope when peering into other solar systems, it has recently used a system of technology know as TRAPPIST-1 to discover seven special planets. TRAPPIST-1 stands for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.

At first, only two planets were found. Five more were later discovered using the accurately named “Very Large Telescope,” located in the European Southern Observatory. Spitzer, the team of scientists who discovered these planets, published their results and announced their findings at a news briefing through NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. What separates these planets from the thousands that have previously been discovered is that they hold the answer to the age-long question: could there be life outside of Earth?

As shown through NASA’s extensive research, planets that have the capability of holding life are few and far between. Finding a planet with the right atmosphere, temperature, water level and distance from a nearby star is no easy task. Most solar systems contain either asteroids or planets that are located too close to or too far away from the star they orbit. The ideal distance is referred to by astronomers as the “habitable zone.” The whole premise of this zone is not exact and is often a range of distances in which a planet’s temperature allows liquid water. Some factors that may change the “habitable zone” for planets is the greenhouse effect, caused by the planet’s atmosphere. Even if a planet is located within the “habitable zone,” it is not guaranteed to be able to sustain life. As soon as the discovery of the seven new exoplanets were made, scientists have begun working to find all that they can about their life-carrying potential.

Upon looking closer at Spitzer’s data, the team at NASA was able to precisely measure the sizes of the planets and develop their first estimation of six of the planets’ masses and densities. The star at the center of the system (titled Trappist-1 after the system that found it) is roughly the size of our planet Jupiter. Just to put things in perspective, Jupiter’s circumference is 272,946 miles, which is approximately 20 times the distance around Earth’s equator. Trappist-1’s circumference is 273,180 miles, which dwarfs in comparison to our sun’s 2.7 million mile circumference. Properly referred to as a “dwarf-star,” Trappist-1 measures in at a measly 8% of our sun’s volume.

Revolving around this tiny sun, astronomers were able to discover seven terrestrial forms. From their findings, they have been able to gain insight to the planets’ abilities to harbor life. To decrease the possibility of confusion, NASA scientists have given the planets a working title for the time being before they name them officially. Each planet has been given a letter and a number according to their orbital position around Trappist-1. Three of the seven planets have been deemed officially located in the “habitable zone” of the Trappist system. Originally, the planet farthest away from Trappist-1, planet 1h, was hypothesized to be completely frozen over and far too cold to hold life.

However, a new study from a group of Cornell students has just been released. Their study states that 1h has the possibility of containing oceans on its surface. Saltwater-dwelling lifeforms are generally more resilient and can survive in much harsher conditions than those that live on land, giving 1h a more optimistic ability to sustain life. This new discovery has lead some to believe that 1h could be added to the additional three “habitable” planets.

It is important to understand that just because these planets have the possibility of holding life does not mean they necessarily do. Many other systems have locations where life could exist but, for one reason or another, does not. From the seemingly infinite number of exoplanets discovered, less than a handful have had the potential to sustain life. The chances that all the stars would align to provide a place for life to occur are slim (no pun intended), and the likelihood that any of these planets do hold life are even slimmer. It is no coincidence that this search has been going on for years with nothing to show for it thus far. Even so, scientists are hopeful that Trappist-1 will provide some answers to whether or not we are alone.

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Are We Alone? Trappist-1 Could Hold the Answer