Hey, everyone! Look what happens. I take a few days off to spend some time with my family, and the whole Internet goes crazy because there’s been a bunch of new planets discovered!
In case you haven’t heard yet, NASA announced yesterday that it has discovered a total of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the intoxicatingly named Jupiter-sized dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 (or, if you’re teetotaling, less, intoxicatingly 2MASS J23062928-0502285). TRAPPIST is an acronym for the name of the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) observatory in Chile that has been studying the star. Three of these planets are in TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone.
TRAPPIST-1 and its planets are right in our cosmic backyard, only 39 light years away, off in the constellation Aquarius. That’s a couple of light years closer to us than the big bright winter star Capella, in the constellation Auriga, in your skies tonight. Of course, on a local scale, this is still 229,300,000,000,000 miles so it’d take roughly forever to get there using our current rocketing skills, but that’s not really the point.
These planets seem to be so Earth-like, possibly with water on the surfaces of the ones in the habitable zone, that they could hold what we think of when we think of life. I don’t think anyone’s really seriously thinking of getting in their Jetsons’ car and zipping off to visit whoever might be visiting, but they’re so close that they’re easy to study.
I haven’t had a lot of time to read about it yet, but I can’t wait to get some time to sit with the news a bit. Could these planets hold life? Maybe. Even if they don’t, and it’ll be some time before we learn anything, it’s incredibly exciting. On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life, even in the most seemingly inhospitable places, places where near-boiling, sulfur-infused water bubbles out of deep cracks. This could be a huge breakthrough in our hunt for life outside out solar system. I can’t wait to read more and see what we’re about to learn. Could TRAPPIST-1 be the place? It’s hard to say, of course. This seems incredibly promising.
Or, maybe, since these planets are all very close to their star so they’re likely tidally locked (one side always faces the star while the other side always faces away, sort of like the way the same side of the moon always faces the earth). The conditions on the surfaces could be bleak. Who knows? That’s part of the magic. Nothing could come of this, and no one’s making any promises of anything more than seven planets for now. Why not be optimistic? I am.
When I look up at the sky, I often wonder who’s looking back. One day, I’m sure, we’ll find it. No matter what happens, it’s incredible what we’re able to find and discover these days. We’re not ready to step out and travel between the stars, not yet, but we’re getting closer and these discoveries are important steps along the way. Congratulations to all of the people behind this discovery. I’ll raise a glass of Chimay in their honor tonight. This truly is a golden age.