Trappist-1: Captivating Space Discovery

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In 2014, three new planets were discovered orbiting around an ultra-cool dwarf star, one that has a temperature under 2,700 K (4,400 °F). As the planets were close to each other but seemingly disconnected as a system, it was dismissed from the public eye.

Now, 3 years later, five more planets have been discovered, and revealed to be an entire solar system. Revealed by NASA in February, the new solar system contains 7 exoplanets, more than has ever been detected in a planetary system before, and was named Trappist-1. The Green and Gold sat down with several Trappist-1 enthusiasts to talk about the new-found discovery.

“We’ve never found that many exoplanets surrounding one star with earth-like conditions,” said Sophomore Laura Von Bargen, space enthusiast and future NASA astrophysicist. All 7 planets of the Trappist-1 system are about the size of earth, and hold earth-like conditions. It’s even possible they could sustain life, as 3 of the 7 planets are located in the habitable zone, or the section in the Trappist-1 system that is not too close to the sun (as it would burn up life), nor too far away (as life would freeze).

The Trappist-1 system, showing which planets lie in the habitable zone, as well as the layout of the system. The planets are marked by alphabetical lettering. Planets E, F, and G lie in the habitable zone. NASA.

“This discovery says so much of technological advances that we have made,” said Jen Sheppard, who teaches Earth science in the middle school. However, to support beings of any kind, even plant life, planets need the key ingredient to life: water.

“We have never encountered a planet with water. We’ve encountered planets with ice that are so frozen solid that they don’t melt down into water. We don’t know if these have water or not yet,” said Von Bargen. If the planets do contain water, this could open up a door to all kinds of new information and discoveries in space.

“I believe this will open the doors for how we search for other solar systems and planets,” said Sheppard. “It will definitely change the way we think about new satellites and the type of information that they can gather from a far distance. For example, atmospheric gases, planet composition and potential for life elsewhere!” Unfortunately for the human race, the Trappist-1 system is quite a ways away. 39 lightyears to be exact.

The first officially released photo of Trappist-1 showing the light levels of the exoplanets, taken February 22nd by the Kepler telescope. NASA

The planets are too far away for anyone to get there in one human life-time. “At the speed of light, it would take 39 years to get there. If you’re going 12,000 miles per hour, it would take 1.8 million years. It’s insanely far away in human [capacity], but in the universe [capacity], it’s really close,” said Von Bargen. It is unlikely we will ever see colonization on TRAPPIST-1 in our lifetimes.

We have yet to know what the planets themselves look like. Scientific evidence based on our own solar system suggests that the three planets closest to the sun are rocky in structure. Many people are reeling at what the surface of each of these planets could be like, and what life on the planets would be life.

“These planets are so close together because they’re around the small dwarf star that when you were on the planets and you looked up at the night sky, you’d be able to see their terrain like we see craters on the moon,” said Von Bargen. Artist’s renditions have been put out, romanticizing what the planets may look like, everything from sketches to mock travel posters.

An artist’s rendition of what the space-tourism to Trappist-1 might hold. NASA.

“I think this helps put into perspective how vast outer space truly is. At the same time, I think it helps us to realize how incredibly tiny the Earth and our solar system is,” said Sheppard. “We have to understand that our Sun and the star the center of the Trappist-1 system are only one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is only one of billions of galaxies.”

Although the human race is too far away to directly engage with Trappist-1, it’s already affecting lives here on Earth, even at Wesleyan.

“I have already been able to share this discovery with my classes this year; however, I look forward to sharing more and getting inspiration for our Mission to Mars project,” said Sheppard. Today, Trappist-1 has already been added to the Wikipedia page on ultra-cool dwarf stars. In the future, books will most likely be written on Trappist-1 and the discovery that led to it. Trappist-1 will have a place in the history of space discovery, and many enthusiasts of both the present and the future will pursue this subject with a passion.

“I think it’s gotten people more interested in space discovery. It kind of lets people know that NASA is still out there and that Nasa is working on big discoveries and there’s still stuff out there to look for,” said Von Bargen. NASA will use new technology to dig deeper into these discoveries, like the The James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launching in 2018 to Trappist-1. The James Webb Space Telescope will be bringing us back more information about the planet’s terrain, water levels, and atmosphere. Using long-wavelength visible light, the telescope will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, and be the prime observatory to Trappist-1 in the coming years.

The NASA team currently working on the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, beside a scale model of the telescope. NASA.

“This discovery affirms that our Creator is mighty, powerful, and way bigger that we could ever imagine. We cannot put Him in a box. Whenever we seem to think we know it all, discoveries like this should remind us that we only see and comprehend a small fraction of God’s work,” said Sheppard.

Trappist-1, it seems, will continue to capture the hearts and imaginations for years to come.

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