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TRAPPIST-1 appears to be our best shot at finding alien life in another solar system

Published: 18 APR 2018 10:54AM

Words by Nastasha Romanenko | Staff Writer


FIRST detected in 2016 at TRAPPIST-ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, the TRAPPIST-1 solar system, which sits about 40 light-years away, is comprised of an ultra-cool dwarf star with seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting it. Just to avoid confusion, the observatory that discovered this solar system is named ‘Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope’, or, TRAPPIST.

Researchers say in a new study that the TRAPPIST-1 star is quite old: between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years. This is up to twice as old as our own solar system, which formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The age of a planet is an important factor when searching for life, if the planet is too young it may not be geologically stable and could also still be incredibly hot, both factors that could inhibit the evolution of any organisms.

Nature Astronomy are due to publish a paper titled, ‘Inward migration of the TRAPPIST-1 planets as inferred from their water-rich compositions’ which suggests two of the planets in this solar system, TRAPPIST-1f, and g, probably contain substantial (≥ 50 wt%) water/ice. Meaning, potentially more than 50% of the mass of the planet could be water/ice.

The team is assuming the planet has a similar core to Earth based on its mass and orbit, which means it could very well possess similar geological features to our planet. It’s very easy to imagine a rocky world with vast oceans and maybe even vegetation. The planet is older than ours so it’s had plenty of time to allow life to develop there.

TRAPPIST-1e is said to be ‘ the rockiest planet of them all’ according to NASA and may contain water in liquid form. What we really need to know about all of these planets is what form water exists on them, is it liquid or ice? Is it on the surface or is it in the atmosphere?

“Hubble reveals that at least three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets -- d, e, and f -- do not seem to contain puffy, hydrogen-rich atmospheres like the gas giants of our own solar system. Hydrogen is a greenhouse gas, and would make these close-in planets hot and inhospitable to life.”

One recent study using data from NASA's Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes, and complex simulations, suggested some of the planets could host 250 times more water than we see in our own oceans here on Earth.

NASA has so far discovered over 5000 possible exoplanets that could be in habitable zones from their stars, only 30 of which have been confirmed as less than twice-Earth size. TRAPPIST-1, however, appears to be our best shot at finding well developed alien life in another solar system, it still may be very primitive but we should hope to expect more than a few organisms dusting around on the surface!


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