New Planets Discovered

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Seven New Planets

 

The search for life beyond our planet just got even more captivating. Earlier this month, NASA revealed that astronomers had found seven new planets orbiting a nearby star. Roughly a year ago, scientists monitoring the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, or TRAPPIST, found three planets orbiting a small, dim dwarf star, some thirty-nine light years away. The three planets were in the so-called “Goldilocks Zone”, where temperatures range from zero to one hundred degrees Celsius, ideal for supporting life.

More recently, the same team found that the TRAPPIST-1 system, the name given to the new system of planets, contained not three but seven planets, all roughly the size of our very own Earth. The most exciting news: while six out of the seven are rocky, all seven could possibly support liquid water. The discovery of these new planets presents a fantastic prospect for life beyond our own solar system, in addition to providing scientists with unparalleled research opportunities. In the words of Julien de Wit, chief planetary scientist at MIT: “All of these planets are the best targets found so far to search for signs of life in the next decade, and it is remarkable that they are all transiting the same star. This means that the system will allow us to study each planet in great depth, providing for the first time a rich perspective on a different planetary system than ours.”

While this news seems distant and full of unsolved mystery, the TRAPPIST-1 system is surprisingly similar to that of Jupiter, both in terms of size and appearance. On the other hand, the planets orbit their host star much closer than other planets, like Earth. Additionally, The star’s innermost planets follow orbits similar to those of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. This allows the TRAPPIST-1 system to receive approximately the same amount of energy and heat that Earth receives.

One of the most exciting and aesthetically appealing elements of the entire TRAPPIST-1 discovery is the close proximity of all the planets. According to NASA: “If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.” While this feature is alluring in terms of visual appeal, the petit area between the planets also serves an important function: the planets interact gravitationally with each other.

While the seven new planets share the same potential of hosting liquid water, some are better suited than others. The adopted nomenclature for said planets follow an alphabetical system, with the planets closest to the star (dubbed TRAPPIST-1A) are called TRAPPIST-1B, and so on and so forth. Consequently, planets TRAPPIST-1B through TRAPPIST-1D are most likely too close to their dwarf star and therefore too hot to host liquid water. On the flip side,TRAPPIST-1H is most likely too far away from the star and therefore too cold to host liquid water. The plus side is that planets TRAPPIST-1E, TRAPPIST-1F, and TRAPPIST-1G are in the “Goldilocks Zone” and therefore can host liquid water.

While this monumental discovery is exciting and certainly groundbreaking, for lack of a better term, the TRAPPIST system is still unreachable with the technology we currently have. Voyager 1, the farthest any man made object has ever travelled, reached a peak distance of a mere nineteen hours. In terms of modern resources, forty light years is just as unreachable as any other distant system. However, the discovery of the TRAPPIST system is still a watershed moment in terms of NASA’s accomplishments, regardless of accessibility or not.

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