A new solar system with seven new earth-sized planets was found

By Caroline Chidester, ’17 and Matthew Shepherd, ’19

In February, scientists made the impactful discovery of seven earth-sized planets orbiting around the ultracool dwarf-star named TRAPPIST-1. Although four of these planets orbit extremely close to the star or too far away to sustain life, three of the seven are in the sun’s habitable zone, meaning they are in the opportune spot relative to the star to hold life.

The small solar system is located in the constellation Aquarius, nearly 40 light-years away. Although this seems like a significant distance, the likelihood of finding possible life-inhabiting planets this close to our own seemed unlikely.

Upper Arlington biology teacher Tim Bridgham is hopeful about this discovery.

“I think the discovery of seven earthlike planets (with three appearing to be in the “habitable zone”) is very exciting news,” Bridgham said. “It stimulates wonder and awe and for those young people who are curious as to ‘how do they know about these planets that are so far away’ – it may motivate them to pursue answers and become more invested in science in general.”

This solar system is much smaller than our own, with TRAPPIST-1 being around the size of Jupiter. It’s small, compact nature and the fact that it orbits a star that is cooler in temperature from our own has raised some concerns.

Emmanuël Jehin of the University of Liège told NPR that the future of these planets and their ability to hold life is uncertain.

“We really cannot know,” Jehin said. “So it looks like everything is possible, at this point. It’s very exciting.”

This discovery not only means possible life, but also opens up multiple different possibilities for scientific discovery. Previously, scientists believed that ultracool dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 were unable to have orbiting planets, which deterred many scientists from searching for them.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that scientists discovered three of the planets surrounding this star and decided to conduct more thorough research around the star. This research led to the discovery of four more planets in the compact solar system.

This opens up a many options as humanity moves forward, and will not only provide a push to visit these planets, but inspire more research into dwarf stars and their gravitational pull.

“I believe NASA and other agencies will continue to learn more about these planets – including the relative amounts of liquid water on each planet and their atmospheric makeup,” Bridgham said.

UAHS biology teacher David Shrieber agrees with Bridgham that there are future discoveries to come.

“In the long term, is it hard to put it into context, but for now it is very significant,” Shrieber said. “Finding this many planets in the ‘goldilocks zone’ is very important, and is a first step to even larger discoveries.”

Although this discovery is a landmark in human history, it raises the concern of interstellar travel. The present fastest ship, Voyager I, is currently rocketing through space at 17 km/s, or 61,200 km/hr. While this seems incredibly fast, it is a snails pace compared to the speed of light, which is around 1.079 billion kilometers per hour. This means that Voyager I is roughly travelling at 1/17,631 the speed of light. Therefore, with current technology, a voyage to TRAPPIST-1’s system would take just over 700,000 years.

To answer this interstellar dilemma on a smaller scale, founder of Digital Sky Technologies Yuri Milner, along with Dr. Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have devised and begun funding Project Starshot.

Combining their intellectual abilities and economic resources, for instance the $100 million invested by Milner, the three hope to send probes to Alpha Centauri, a star 4.367 light years from Earth. The plan is to use a technology called a light-sail and a giant laser based in the Atacama desert in Chile.

The ships would need to have a large enough sail to catch the light emitted from the laser, be able to reflect most of the light in order to not disintegrate, but also weigh less than a gram. The laser used to propel the probes would be akin to science fiction super weapons, with enough power to propel a small ship through space, and requiring an entire power plant devoted solely to powering the laser.

If the team is able to develop and construct the probes and the laser, The Atlantic, in their April 12, 2016 article ​“Inside a Billionaire’s New Interstellar Mission” said, “Milner hopes to prove that a probe could make the journey to Alpha Centauri in only 20 years.”