nasa trappist

TRAPPIST-1: Have we got neighbors?

Two possibilities exist, either we are alone in this planet or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

With the release of some radical revelations from NASA that there exist not one but seven exoplanets that share the features and size of the very planet we call home, Earth, Arthur C. Clarke’s petrifying take on intelligent alien life has reached a partial consensus. It is very unlikely that we are alone. So, have we really got ourselves some neighbors?

What happened on the 22nd of February

Astronomers from NASA, at their headquarters situated in Washington DC, disclosed that there are 7 exoplanets with earth-like qualities that revolve around a dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1 which is located not more than 39.5 light-years away from our solar system.

In astronomical measures, 39.5 light years is like walking down your street to grab a soda. The planets were christened as TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c, TRAPPIST-1d, TRAPPIST-1e, TRAPPIST-1f, TRAPPIST-1g and TRAPPIST-1h. Out of these seven, three of the exoplanets, namely, TRAPPIST-1e, f and g fall into the habitable zones. Moreover, astronomers speculate that all seven exoplanets can contain water in its surfaces thereby increasing the prospects of discovering earth’s possible twin.

So, what are exoplanets?

Planets that are not part of our solar system are simply called as exoplanets. The seven newly discovered ones revolve around a dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1 or TRAPPIST-1a. This red hot giant is, however; significantly smaller and relatively cooler than our very own sun.

A comparison of TRAPPIST-1 to our Solar System.                                                     Image: Toronto Star

Now, this distant solar system is located in the Aquarius constellation. TRAPPIST-1 is categorized as an ultra-cool dwarf star. Solar systems with such stars are considered most likely to find planets in its network that resembled the characteristics of our very earth as the ultra low temperatures can improve the probability of finding water in one of them, consequently improving the chances of discovering alien life-forms. Yes, you heard it right, alien life forms.  TRAPPIST-1 is slightly just bigger than our Jupiter and 2700K hot as opposed to the 5800K temperature radiated by the sun while no fewer than a thousand Jupiter can fit into the mass of our sun.

How were they discovered?

Contrary to the popular notion, TRAPPIST-1 and its planets were not just discovered on February 22nd. Scientists have been observing five of the exoplanets since 2015.

Astronomers from the University of Liège in Belgium, supervised by Michaël Gillon used the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope–South (TRAPPIST), located at Chile, to discover the highly celebrated planet system. With the anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, described as the largest space telescope to be sent into orbit, scientists and science junkies hope that the coming decades will shift the limelight from Mars to TRAPPIST-1.

So, what does this mean for us?

Granted, the recent developments have been something straight out of a Ridley Scott movie and disregarding the terrifying consequences associated with the discovery, it is perhaps one of the greatest findings we may witness in our lifetime. But, is all this really worth all the hype?

A view from one of the exoplanets.                                                                              Image: ExtremeTech

To put things in perspective, let us consider that there are indeed highly intelligent life forms on one of the TRAPPIST planets and they are observing earth as well. What do they see? Located 39 light-years away from them, they would see a crazy spinning planet where Star Wars just released and Elvis Presley is found dead, i.e., they see the 1977 earth. Even if we use all the resources at our disposal, and Voyager-1- our fastest space, it would take us roughly 700,000 years to reach the TRAPPIST system. Which means, right now, we have zero possibility of reaching them in time.  And even if it was possible, what if they perished by the time we reach there?

What does this all mean for them?

Really ? What could our highly celebrated discovery mean for the TRAPPIST planets and its speculated inhabitants anyway!

Once we finally succeed in placing a flag on these recently discovered exoplanets, our armies will follow. Which will then be followed by gazillion fast-food franchises, deforestation and probably even an interplanetary immigration ban. Maybe they found us too, only to decide not to ever set foot on Earth. So, maybe it’s best for us and them that we leave them alone.

With every passing decade, humans prove themselves to be the most inhumane beings of the countless species to ever walk on the face of the earth. It also raises some questions like, are we really ready to talk about colonizing other planets when an estimated 20,000 people die every day due to lack of food and water on our planet.

Nevertheless, next time when you are lying face up on a beach with the sea kissing your feet, looking up at the stars, you can be certain that someone somewhere is looking down at you as well.


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