Editor’s note: This column originally published March 3, 2017.
I’m a card-carrying member of The Planetary Society. Led by Bill Nye (The Science Guy), the nonprofit’s mission is to “empower the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration.”
A donation in my name was the most brilliant Christmas gift I’d ever received — thanks Betsy. I get the monthly magazine — keeping me up to date on all things planetary, a stylish ID badge (nerd alert) and the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping advance the message of space research.
It also gives me a reason to smile during a time when it’s been more challenging to find something to smile about.
Uncertainty can be frightening, as we now see day-to-day with the unpredictability of our society’s trajectory. The news cycle is filled with daily doomsday rhetoric which is, at the very least, uninspiring. So the wide coverage of NASA’s big announcement that scientists have discovered a nearby star which is home to seven Earth-sized planets was a heartwarming departure from the norm.
In case you missed it, the space agency unveiled findings which prove the dwarf star Trappist-1 has seven planets in a tight orbit. The innermost planet has an orbital period of 1.5-Earth days and the outermost takes 12.5 days to get around its host star.
The fact they’re Earth-sized is particularly important because this means they are likely “rocky” worlds like our own and have the mass to support a dense atmosphere capable of supporting life. Three of the planets are in Trappist -1’s “habitable zone,” which means it’s at the right distance from the star to have liquid water exist and remain on the surface for long periods. Liquid water is necessary for all forms of life as we know it, so the discovery has scientists excited.
But the cherry on top of this planetary exploration pie is the size of Trappist-1. As a dwarf star, it is much less luminous and much cooler than our Sun. That means there is less light blocking Earth and space-based observatories from seeing these planets.
Now, when I say “seeing,” that can be a bit deceptive. We don’t have the technology to image these seven new worlds. But through spectroscopy, scientists can measure the different colors of light emanating from these planets, allowing them to analyze the various gases in the atmosphere.
As we know from news coverage of Earth (climate change anyone), life ranging from microbes to humans emit gasses that end up in our atmosphere. Methane, oxygen and ozone are all emitted from organisms, and scientist believe this could also hold true from alien life.
Yes, that’s right. NASA scientist think within the next few years, observations of the Trappist-1 planets could reveal, once and for all, if life exists beyond our planet. And at only 39 light years away, life would only be a hop, skip and warp jump away, considering the scope of our galaxy. These planets are now our best chance to date of finding life outside our own solar system.
So, there you have it. Your daily break of sweet, sweet space news which could eventually change the course of human history. I now return you to your regularly scheduled rat-race, but only if you want to go. Soon, we may have a new place to turn our attention just 235 trillion miles away.
Contact Mike Mendenhall