The truth is out there. As least that’s the tagline of the famed ’90s extraterrestrial TV show X-Files. As it turns out, the truth very well may be out there, and scientists are closer than ever to finding it. Could the existence of aliens ever be confirmed? It seems more and more possible.
Scientists Made a Ground-Breaking Discovery
In late February 2017, the journal Nature reported an amazing discovery. Scientists had found a brand new solar system 39 light years away that contained seven warm, rocky planets. This is the first time astronomers have found this many terrestrial planets (or planets with the ability to support life) orbiting a single sun.
The Best Chance We Have at Finding Life
Researchers have admitted that this newfound solar system could be the best chance we have to find life beyond Earth – yes, we’re talking about aliens.
Michaël Gillon, the lead author of the journal and an exoplanet researcher at Belgium’s University of Leige, said “Before this, if you wanted to study terrestrial planets, we had only four of them and they were all in our solar system. Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to expand our understanding. Yes, we have the possibility to find water and life. But even if we don’t, whatever we find will be super-interesting.”
In the Habitable Zone
At 100°C, water begins to evaporate. At 125°C, protein and carbohydrate molecules and genetic material like DNA and RNA start to break down. If this newfound solar system had a star like our own, that’s certainly what would happen. Thankfully, all the planets revolve around a dwarf star.
Scientists believe that all seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system hold enough warmth and liquid water to support life. Three of those planets receive the same amount of heat as Venus, Earth, and Mars, putting them in the habitable zone. But are these planets really like Earth? Are there aliens waiting for us on a planet far, far away? There’s a whole lot more that goes into a planet being survivable than just warmth and water.
NASA Also Believes TRAPPIST-1’s System Could Harbor Exotic Lifeforms (Or Be a Total Bust)
NASA has set their hopes high for life in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system. In a piece published to their Expolanet Exploration blog, the organization wrote that the planets “could harbor exotic lifeforms, thriving under skies of ruddy twilight.” We do know for sure that it may be our best chance, but there are tons of ways it could totally go wrong.
Because TRAPPIST-1 is a red dwarf star, NASA believes that the planets could also be “chunks of rock blasted by radiation or cloud-covered worlds as broiling hot at Venus.” It’s hard to tell from 39 million lightyears away.
This New Solar System Is Very Comparable to Our Own
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What we do know is that this solar system is similar to the one we’re in now. With seven Earth-like planets, it would appear to be more hospitable than our own (only Earth supports life, but Mars comes close). The entire solar system is like a scaled-down version of the one we live in, and its compact size actually lends itself towards supporting life.
Unlike our sun, the star at the center of this universe is a small, cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. It’s about one-tenth of the size of our sun, and generates much less heat – which is a good thing!
If TRAPPIST-1 Was Like Our Sun, the Solar System Would Be Doomed
TRAPPIST-1 is the potential life-force behind the Earth-like planets found in this new solar system. If TRAPPIST-1 wasn’t a dwarf and was more similar to our own sun, there’d be a huge problem.
All of the planets in the new solar system closely orbit TRAPPIST-1. The planets circle so tightly that the closest takes a day and a half to complete its journey around the star, and the furthest takes about 20 days. If the star was any brighter or bigger, these planets would be absolutely fried like an egg.
But Red Dwarfs Are So Volatile That Scientists Just Aren’t Sure
Red dwarfs (or M-dwarfs) make up 75 percent of the stars in our galaxy. They have a way longer lifespan than most other types of stars, and the planets that orbit them are typically larger than the norm. Dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1 outnumber other stars, including yellow stars like our own sun, by three to one. Experts can’t really make up their mind on whether or not red dwarf planets, like those in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system, are suitable for life — and there are a ton of reasons as to why they keep flip-flopping.
“We’ve come up with these theoretical reasons why such a planet might struggle to be habitable,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a research space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Then we look at those theoretical concerns with a little bit more detail, and find out it’s not that big of a concern. Then some other theoretical concern crops up.”
The Sun Could Actually Be Lethal (Even If It’s “Cool”)
Despite scientists’ hope for life in the TRAPPIST-1 system, right now, the popular opinion is that these planets probably can’t support life. This isn’t because the temperature would be inhospitable (though it could be scaldingly hot) or because the air is toxic (which is also very probable).
The problem lies in the fact that red dwarfs are extremely active stars, especially in their early years. They shoot off potentially lethal flares and bursts of radiation. If you’ve ever seen the futuristic, teen drama The 100, you know that human life and mass amounts of radiation don’t mesh well. It could take one billion years for the sun to calm down enough to no longer be a danger to nearby planets.
Oxygen May Be Lacking
A team at NASA Goddard performed a recent study that ran on computer simulations of red dwarf planets and delivered some grim news for those hoping that TRAPPIST-1 would finally prove the existence of aliens. It showed that even if life was able to survive the radiation and the potentially lethal flares, it may be completely lacking oxygen.
The high-energy X-ray and ultraviolet emissions from a red dwarf star can literally strip oxygen from the atmosphere of nearby planets. Basically, if you were hoping to breathe on anywhere near TRAPPIST-1, you may be out of luck.
One Scientist Believes Life Could Have Adapted to Thrive on These Potentially Treacherous Planets
Life isn’t easy on any planet, and just like Earth, where not every environment is hospitable, life in TRAPPIST-1 could have adapted. Tom Barclay, a senior research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California believes so.
“You have regular events, but life is used to this,” said Barclay. “It just deals with it. We certainly see life on Earth capable of hibernating for very extended periods of time. We see that life goes into a state where it shuts down, sometimes for years or decades. So I think we shouldn’t, probably, rule it out, but we should put a lot of effort into studying whether this is a place where we think life could thrive.”
There Would at Least Be a Gorgeous View
If the TRAPPIST-1 system is habitable to life, we’re looking at one of the most futuristic vacation destinations around (if humans could even feasibly travel 39 light years away in a long weekend). The planets’ nearness to the central star means it would appear three times as large as our sun. Because they’re all so close together, we’d see the other planets passing across the sky in front of the sun. That’s a whole lot more than just the view of the moon we have now.
The dwarf star isn’t at the end of its life-cycle, either. It’s not a dim, cold white dwarf. Rather, TRAPPIST-1 is a gorgeous salmon color which paints the entire sky in a perpetual sunset. Whatever lives on those planets lives in the Golden Hour for most of the day.
Making the Discovery
Michaël Gillon and his team have had their eye on TRAPPIST-1 since 2015. It wasn’t until recently, though that they discovered there were planets orbiting around this star.
The star was named after the telescope they used to make the discovery – the European Southern Observatory’s Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST). Watching from their observatory in Chile, the scientists noticed dips in the star’s brightness which occurred in regular intervals. They soon discovered this was caused by planets crossing between the star and Earth. Scientists published these findings last May, stating they found three rocky bodies: TRAPPIST-1b, -1c and -1d – but that wasn’t all.
TRAPPIST -1d Exhibited Some Strange Behavior
At the same time Gillon had published his team’s findings, he noticed that TRAPPIST-1d had some strange behavior. He traveled to the Atacama Desert in South America, where he could observe the planet through the Very Large Telescope (a creative name, isn’t it?) at ESO’s observatory.
After observing the planet, he realized that the dip in brightness they attributed to TRAPPIST-1d was not caused by the planet alone. It was caused by three separate planets transiting at the same time. This is a feat that, according to Julien de Wit, a planetary scientist and co-author of the study, only happens once every three years.
The Chance of Catching This Phenomenon Was Slim
The chance of catching what Gillon caught in the Very Large Telescope was somewhat of a miracle. “The chance of catching it is less than one in a thousand,” explained de Wit. “It’s funny because it’s such a huge paper with amazing results, and we got it from sheer luck.”
This led to the team requesting time at the Spitzer Space Telescope, which offered an uninterrupted view of the newfound solar system. In the 20 days the team spent with the telescope, they saw 34 transits, which lead to the realization that TRAPPIST-1 had seven planets. They renamed them TRAPPIST-1b through –h.
Measuring the Mass and Density of the Planets
If aliens do exist in TRAPPIST-1’s system, it’s because the mass of the planets allows for life to exist – but measuring the mass of something 39 light years away is not easy.
Scientists looked at the length of the inner six planets orbits. They found that the length of the orbits was related by a ratio of whole numbers because of the gravitational influences they had on one another. The scientists measured these influences to find the mass of each planet. From there, they managed to calculate an estimation of their densities, which can predict how much water, gas, iron, and rock each planet contains.
Why These Planets are Likely to Contain Water
The planets in TRAPPIST-1’s solar system have a great chance of containing water – and it’s not just because they’re in Aquarius (the water sign constellation).
Scientists believe these planets formed further away from their sun and slowly moved inward. Water and other molecules that turn into gas are usually concentrated at the outer edges of solar systems. If these planets started there and moved inward, there’s a huge possibility, they would contain water in some for. Whether that water is purely gas or a liquid is a totally different story. The water could be too acidic to hold life – scientists can’t possibly know.
TRAPPIST-1 Is Closer Than You Think
Yes, 39 million light years seems like a world away – more than a world actually. The truth is that the Milky Way is so expansive that it’s estimated to be 100,000 light years in diameter. TRAPPIST-1 isn’t that far away when you think about it. It’s close enough for the James Webb Space Telescope to detect atmospheric components and thermal emissions.
The telescope is NASA’s rather recent project that is said to put the Hubble to shame. Oh, it’s also covered in gold. If the James Webb telescope can help scientists discover what the planets are made from, it could change the way we think about life outside of Earth. We will just have to wait until then to see.
You May Not Want To Live in the TRAPPIST-1 Solar System, Even if You Could
Just because a planet supports life, doesn’t mean it’d be a great place to live – which is probably be the case for some of TRAPPIST-1’s planets.
Scientists have specifically been focused on planets e, f and g because of their position within the TRAPPIST-1 solar system puts them in the habitable zone. But, even if these planets are delightfully warm, they’re not likely to have traditional days. They are tidally locked, meaning one side of the planet always faces the sun and one side is always in constant darkness. This could create a really dramatic difference in temperature between the two sides and cause terrible, strong winds.
Earth-like Planets Could Be Common, and Gillon’s Team Is Determined to Find Out
Scientists have long believed that the Milky Way is loaded with Earth-like planets. The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 solar systems leads to more evidence that Earth-like planets are more common than we thought. Could you imagine somewhere, there are a bunch of aliens running around? Pretty soon we could see ourselves in the likes of Independence Day or Arrival (though, admittedly, that’s probably pretty far off).
After Gillon and his team made this groundbreaking discovery, they decided to seek out similar solar systems and started a brand new project called Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultracool Stars, otherwise known as SPECULOOS (yes, it’s named after a cookie).
Proxima b: One Last Hope for Life
The seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system aren’t the only hopefully terrestrial planets scientists have found. In August, scientists discovered Proxima b, a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. Today’s best telescopes have fallen short when it’s come to examining Proxima b. They’re too small and too simplistic to really get a good glimpse of the planet, which is just over four light years away. That’s significantly closer than TRAPPIST-1’s planets, but it’s still too far for modern telescopes.
So far, scientists haven’t seen Proxima b, they’ve only studied its orbit, similar to how they studied the orbit of TRAPPIST-1’s planets to discover their mass and density. If TRAPPIST-1 turns out to be a major bust, and the planets are swathed in radiation and toxic water, at least we have hope elsewhere.