The Exoplanet Anomaly

Marwa Hameed

Imagine a world where you can walk side by side with a green three eyed alien! Those dreams might just become a reality. NASA and European astronomers, with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope, have stumbled across seven earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the same star, called TRAPPIST-1 which may hold key information about the search for life on other worlds. The discovery was announced at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. on February 27th and published in the online journal, Nature. Heading the observations of TRAPPIST-1, there was an international team of exoplanet experts, including lead study author Michaël Gillon from the University of Liège in Belgium, and astronomer Amaury H. M. J. Triaud from the University of Cambridge. This discovery has renewed the idea that we are not alone in the universe.

An artist’s idea of what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like. Credit: NASA-JPL

TRAPPIST-1, which is classified as an ultra cool dwarf star allowing for the possibility of liquid water to dwell on the exoplanets orbiting close to it.  These planets are known to be warm and rocky. According to the findings, scientists think the key to discovering habitable environments lie in this system because it has an ideal environment for studying life beyond the solar system. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C.  Soon, the Hubble Space Telescope will be able to detect molecules from the orbit of the planets’ atmospheres which will be used to test for life on these planets such as water. Additionally, when the James Webb Space Telescope is put into motion next year, it will be able to look at infrared wavelengths of light to get a closer look at TRAPPIST-1.

The TRAPPIST-1 star has seven Earth-size planets simultaneously orbiting it.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is relatively close to Earth in the constellation of Aquarius, which is 40 light years (235 trillion miles) away from Earth. They may be tidally locked, meaning that one side of each planet always faces the sun while the other is stuck in everyday darkness. Although they are believed to have warmer temperatures, they could hold irregular weather patterns such as strong winds blowing from the day side of the planet to the night side. Three out of the seven discovered planets are in the habitable zone and hold the most potential for stable atmospheric conditions.

Another drawing by an artist that foreshadows the view from the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There is still a chance, however, the exoplanets can turn out to be lifeless. No matter what, the revolutionary discoveries scientists will be able to find on these planets are still a remarkable step towards studying other earth-like atmospheres and adding to the never ending quest for the search for life beyond. In the words of Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “as we’ve learned from studying and discovering exoplanets before, where there is one, there are more.”