On February 22, 2017, Nasa put out a press release announcing the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets surrounding a star. This system of exoplanets were confirmed recently by NASA’s telescope Spitzer after the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Peru discovered three of the seven planets in May 2016.
The exoplanet system is named TRAPPIST-1 after the telescope that made the initial discovery of three of the planets in the system. All seven planets are Earth-sized and orbit an ultra-cool dwarf star that is smaller than our own sun. After the discovery of the planets, NASA astronomers calculated the density of the planets in the system and determined that they are most likely rocky planets.
This discovery is major not only because it’s a system of planets similar to our own but because it’s highly likely that at least three of the seven planets are habitable, with the possibility of all of them being habitable. The three closest planets in the system’s density and their relative location to the star in the system leads astronomers to believe there is a good chance that those planets host liquid water on their surface. The other four planets have a chance of water but it’s more likely frozen than liquid. Since water is the key element to life, this discovery could be a significant step in finding the answer to the age old question, “Are we alone in the universe?”
At about 40 light-years away (235 trillion miles) from Earth, it is not plausible at this point in time to send a rover to TRAPPIST-1 to further examine the planets, much less human travel to the system. But it’s still interesting to consider the “What If’s” surrounding the TRAPPIST-1 system. Like, what if human travel to the planets was plausible within our lifetime? And what if there is life within that system?
When asked about if there would ever be the possibility of travel to the system, Emery Greenwood, a sophomore, said that it would definitely be possible because of how fast technology is increasing and how inclusive science is becoming. “With the inclusion of more female minds in the science, we will be able to advance to the point of travel to the system.”
If it were a possibility to travel to TRAPPIST-1 within our lifetime and people were offered a chance to travel to the planets, most people turned down the hypothetical offer. Some backed up their answer with science fiction situations. Hunter Ward, a sophomore, said, “I wouldn’t go because I don’t want to travel five gazillion miles to a planet just to get killed by some life form like the aliens from the Alien vs Predator movies.” Others, like Greenwood, said that they wouldn’t go because of factors like family on Earth, “I couldn’t travel that far away from family but if I didn’t have family or any other obligations on Earth, I would be the first on the vehicle there.”
Even though these situations are hypothetical and more comparable to science fiction than reality, the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet system is a huge step towards humanity expanding our horizons past our own solar system.