NASA just held an event regarding “a major discovery beyond our solar system”.
Like I always do with any event, I was expecting something out of this world. (see what I did there?)
Let’s get down to what was announced.
WHAT DID THEY DISCOVER?
NASA announced the discovery of seven earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a single star.
This planetary system is called the TRAPPIST–1 planetary system, where the central star is TRAPPIST-1. The name is from a telescope called The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, (or as I like to call it, TRAPPIST ), which discovered three of the seven planets, in 2016.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THESE PLANETS?
NASA’s Spitzer telescope has provided enough data to precisely measure the seven planets and estimate the masses of six of them, which in turn help with estimating their densities. These densities say that the planets are rocky.
The most interesting fact about this discovery is how close these planets are, to their parent star.
The Earth, for example, takes 365.25 days to orbit the Sun once. The first and second TRAPPIST-1 planets take 1.5 and 2.4 Earth DAYS respectively, to orbit TRAPPIST-1! The farthest planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system is nearer to TRAPPIST-1, than Mercury is to the Sun!
The planets probably have equal periods of rotation and revolution, which means that one side of the planets is always day, and the other is always night. Similar to how we can always see only one side of the moon.
The reason that these planets are so close and could still potentially have liquid water on them, is that their star is an ultra-cool dwarf star. Its temperature is lesser than 2,300 °C, compared to our Sun’s slightly warmer 5,500 °C.
CAN WE VISIT THEM?
The good news is that you can! The bad news is that you’ll need a vehicle that travels at the speed of light, if you want to reach there in about 40 years.
The planets are at a distance of about 40 light years from Earth, or in simpler terms, 3782-followed-by-11-zeroes kilometers. Don’t even try to imagine that number, unless you want to scramble your brain!
WHY IS THIS DISCOVERY IMPORTANT?
This discovery contains the highest number of planets orbiting a single star, discovered so far. One of the astronomers who hosted the event, noted that that number, prior to this discovery, was two or three max. So, given that these seven planets are earth-sized and that three of them are in the habitable zone, there is a large chance that at least one of these planets could support life.
Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.
– Thomas Zurbuchen
I don’t know about you, but I strongly believe that we are not alone in the universe. So, this is a huge deal!
WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE FOR THESE PLANETS?
In 2018, NASA’s launching its James Webb Space Telescope. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere, and analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures — which are kind of a big deal if you want life to exist there.
So, 2018 could bring us a lot more amazing information about TRAPPIST-1 and its planets.
HOW CAN I KNOW MORE?
You can watch the whole event here :
You can also check out the amazing videos from NASA. They’ll get you up to speed, and also fill you up on anything I might have left out here!