March 17, 2017 by Donna Kwon
The TRAPPIST-1 solar system may have up to three habitable planets, according to a NASA press conference held Feb. 27.
TRAPPIST-1 is a system of seven planets orbiting around a dwarf star. The star is entitled TRAPPIST-1a, and the planets have been dubbed TRAPPIST-1b to TRAPPIST-1h — named after the telescope that helped to make the initial discovery, the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.
While it is true that new planets are found often — in 2016, NASA’s Kepler mission confirmed the existence of 1,284 planets all at once — the discovery of these seven new planets is an important step forward for the future of space exploration.
What makes the discovery of TRAPPIST-1 so novel is that these planets have the potential for extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, this new solar system is only 39 light-years away from the earth, making it accessible for further research. As a comparison, the Milky Way Galaxy is a total of 100,000 light-years in diameter. Although humans don’t currently have the means to travel that far, it is entirely possible that future technology will allow for travel of this magnitude.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is small, with a dwarf sun and low-mass planets. In fact, this is the first time in history that so many Earth-sized planets have been found orbiting the same star. According to NASA, all of these planets harbor the potential for the presence of water. Three planets in particular, 1e, 1f and 1g, have the potential to have the right atmospheric conditions to support entire oceans.
Despite this, it’s not entirely clear whether or not the TRAPPIST-1 system is actually capable of supporting life. After all, living organisms need more than just water and an atmosphere to survive.
“Harboring life itself probably isn’t all that difficult — probably. The problem is just because [a planet] is in the habitable zone doesn’t mean it’s going to be earth-like conditions. For example, mars is in the habitable zone of our sun; it’s definitely not earth-like,” Joe Glaser, a physics doctoral candidate who specializes in exoplanet simulations at Drexel University, said.
The next steps to further understanding of this new solar system are already underway. While scientists are currently taking a look at the TRAPPIST-1 system using the Hubble Space Telescope, there may be new options for research soon.
With the launch of the new James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, it will be possible to learn more about this new solar system. The JWST will be able to pick up biosignatures that may indicate life, such as atmospheric composition and molecular spectra. It will be able to provide more sensitive readings as well, such as those concerning planets’ temperatures and surface pressures.
TRAPPIST-1a was initially discovered in 1999, and the orbits of some of the planets were originally observed in 2015. The existence of the seven planets was confirmed and published in early February of this year, and NASA released a public statement about the TRAPPIST-1 system Feb. 22, 2017.
The statement can be read in full at https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around.