Our quest for Earth-like planets reached the new breakthrough when NASA announced its new discovery of seven new planets. Called “exoplanets,” these planets orbit around a dim star coded TRAPPIST-1, with interesting characteristics that may or may not be possible to support life. The formal announcement was spoken by several representatives from NASA and other top science institutions, including a professor from Belgium whose team made the discovery for the first time.
Despite formal press release and special Q&A forum in Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything,” NASA gave quite brief information about the discovery. The details are currently still with the Nature journal, but NASA promised to release more information along with the ongoing studies toward those planets. Public also expects to see how the studies will be conducted after NASA announced that it will use three new research tools starting from year 2018.
New Solar System with Earth-like Planets
The new discovery has stunned scientific communities and astronomy enthusiasts around the world. Not only because there are seven planets, but these planets actually revolve around a single star, albeit not as massive as the sun. The planets were first discovered by a team from University of League, Belgium. Using TRANsiting Planets and Planetesmals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), a tool located in Chile, the team had first discovered the small star that they dubbed TRAPPIST-1. However, further studies about the star’s movements and dimming periods suggested the presence of planets that revolve around it.
The team, led by Michael Gillon, finally confirmed the presence of three planets around the TRAPPIST-1 in May 2016, and four more in the following observations. This February, NASA confirmed that there are seven planets that formed a solar system outside our own, and dubbed these planets “exoplanets.” With strong gravitation pull between each other, the planets have unique way in orbiting the TRAPPIST-1 star, but overall, some of the planets have similarities with our Earth.
With the new discovery and possibilities to find habitats of extra-terrestrial creatures, NASA gathered scientists and researchers with prominent focuses in exoplanets and bio signatures in space. Among the speakers were Michael Gillon, MIT’s exoplanet researcher Sara Seager, Thomas Zuburchen from NASA Science Mission Directorate, and Nikole Lewis from Space Telescope Science Institute. The speakers made their formal press release on 22 February, and grafting new mark in the modern history of space exploration.
NASA has also explored their further goals in the next studies, including the possibilities to find bio signatures and determining whether the planets are actually habitable or not.
TRAPPIST-1: Diminutive Star and Center of Solar System
Despite being labeled a “dwarf” star, TRAPPIST-1 has been proven as an amazing discovery. The star may be only slightly larger than Jupiter, and has 2000 times less brilliance than our sun. However, this small star becomes the center of seven planet formations, which clearly affect each other and determine how life will fare in these planets. NASA scientists suggested that not all planets get the warmth and light from this star, but some of the nearest planets have quite equal amount of heat distribution, despite the obvious presence of temperature gradients that may occur.
The planets around TRAPPIST-1 were given codenames that reflected the name of the star, from TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c, TRAPPIST-1d, to TRAPPIST-1h for the outer planets. Each planet may have unique yet similar tidal activities, due to their close proximities that cause their gravitational pulls to affect each other. The planets also show strong volcanic activities, with rock and mountain formations everywhere.
NASA still doesn’t know what the planet compositions are, but the studies are currently going toward that way. By understanding the composition, NASA could determine whether the planets support life forms or not, and if there are any signs of bio signatures, which are basically the scientific obsessions of anyone who is interested with space exploration.
New Planets May Show Bio Signatures
According to Sara Seager, the MIT exoplanet expert who was in the speaker team of NASA’s press release, suggested that the next studies could also focus on bio signatures in the newly discovered exoplanets. NASA has started studies to learn the characteristics of the planets, and even made artistic renditions of how the planets may look like. They are generally rocky, with earth-like surfaces. The smallest of them has 75% of Earth’s mass density, while the biggest is 10 times bigger than the Earth. If the planets have similar characteristics with Earth, there are also possibilities that the planets (some, at least) can support certain forms of life.
NASA can only study these planets in more intense details in 2018, when the institution finally launches James Webb Space Telescope. NASA is also still waiting for the completion of two research tools: Giant Magellan Telescope and European Extremely Large Telescope. When the tools have finally been completed, NASA plans to focus the study on bio signatures and signs of habitable planet surface.
Meanwhile, NASA is currently focusing the studies on things like the planets’ movements and composition. By understanding their movements, compositions, and how they affect each other in their orbital routes, NASA can see the characteristics of each planet, including how gravitational pull affects each other. If the studies go well, we may finally see signs of life that support extraterrestrial life in these exoplanets. In the future, this may be the start of humanity’s ambition to place colonies in another planet that looks like Earth.