[Featured image by NASA/Getty Images]

What Does NASA’s Newly Discovered TRAPPIST Exoplanet Discovery Mean For Space?

This week, NASA announced the discovery of a new system of alien worlds that might support life, and space fans around the world are freaking out about what this might mean for the future of interstellar travel.

Wednesday, NASA announced it had discovered seven alien planets orbiting the nearby TRAPPIST-1 star, and three of them were rocky Earth-like worlds in the habitable zone that might support liquid water, and therefore life.

When NASA talks about finding life on other worlds, its referring to microorganisms and not full blown Star Trek-style aliens, but that hasn’t stopped the TRAPPIST-1 discovery team from hosting a website with a number of science fiction stories.

[Image by NASA/Getty Images]
[Image by NASA/Getty Images]

The website, fittingly named trappist.one, hosts information on the discovery, NASA-designed travel posters, infographics, artistic videos detailing what life might be like on the newly discovered alien worlds, and a series of sci-fi stories and poems.

One story, “The terminator” by Laurence Suhner, was published in Nature and tells the story of a girl who travels to the TRAPPIST-1 system to sprinkle her mother’s ashes.

“So. Here I am. At the line between dark and light. At the very border that separates the side facing the star from the one that remains eternally shaded. It’s like being at the edge of the visible world.”

The newly-discovered system, TRAPPIST-1, is an ultracool dwarf star about 39 light years from the sun in the Aquarius constellation, and is very much like our own solar system, only much more compact; the planets all orbit much closer to their star than ours do.

This might mean the alien worlds are tidally locked with one side always facing their star, as the authors of the discovery explained in Nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system is a compact analogue of the inner Solar System.”

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak wrote in a blog post that the newly-discovered alien system would make a great backdrop for a sci-fi story.

“With worlds that are about the same size as Earth but separated by relatively tiny distances, you could look up and see planets that looked like round balls.”

He also suggests looking for radio signals emanating from the system to help speed the discovery of intelligent alien life on TRAPPIST-1.

[Image by IoA/Amanda Smith/NASA]
[Image by IoA/Amanda Smith/NASA]

NASA artists have also drawn up a series of travel posters, even though tourists won’t be visiting the new planets any time soon. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is still the best choice for interstellar travel because it’s only 4.22 light years away from Earth, and also has rocky, potentially Earth-like planets in the habitable zone, which are also tidally locked.

Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Starshot project, with its laser-propelled wafer nanoships could reach Proxima Centauri in 20 to 25 years, but it would take the small ships about 200 years to reach the TRAPPIST-1 system.

NASA is already planning follow up research on the TRAPPIST-1 system when the James Webb Space Telescope is operational next year. The European Space Organization’s Extremely Large Telescope, which goes online in 2024, will be able determine whether any of the newly discovered alien worlds posses liquid water.

There are still many questions to be answered about the TRAPPIST system, but the chance to discover an alien planet that could support life is definitely motivating, as one of the NASA scientists told Gizmodo.

“If the star is active (as indicated by the X-ray flux) then [a planet in orbit] needs an ozone layer to shield its surface from the harsh UV that would sterilize the surface. If these planets do not have an ozone layer, life would need to shelter underground or in an ocean to survive—and/or develop strategies to shield from the UV.”

Do you think scientists will discover alien life in the the new TRAPPIST system?

[Featured image by NASA/Getty Images]

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