TRAPPIST-1 star system a treasure trove of cosmic delights

What the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets means

Depending on your level of curiosity or cynicism, NASA’s recent discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 may either be met with marvel or indifference.

trappist
Extrasolar space tourism may not be foreseeable but this poster shows the limitlessness of human imagination

And either reaction is justified. Although three of these planets orbit in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” and are possibly habitable, in reality none likely are. Venus and Mars are often considered to be in the habitable zone of our Sun, but both offer up hellish living conditions as of now. Only next-generation telescopes will be able to shed light on atmosphere composition and the terrestrial makeups of these planets, if any. Because TRAPPIST-1 has just a fraction of the luminosity of our Sun, scientists really have no idea about the feasibility of life in such conditions. On top of that, the system is 39 light years away; in other words, it would take 39 years travelling at a likely impossible speed to reach this system, or millions of years by conventional methods. So, given the unlikelihood of any sort of life on these planets and the impossibility of travelling there for many generations, if at all, what is the point? Although this may be a minuscule discovery amidst the vastness of the universe, the discovery of these planets actually shades in many blank spaces in our current understanding of extrasolar planets. For example, TRAPPIST-1 is a relatively small red dwarf star, which were previously thought not to contain much of interest in their orbits. Since these stars make up roughly 75 percent of stars in the Milky Way, the fact that they are even capable of hosting an Earth-like planet means there are billions of potential Earths in our galactic neighborhood. Even though we might not be visiting them anytime soon, a steady stream of discoveries such as this means we may never have to physically visit in order to learn plenty about what is already there.

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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