While the rest of y’all were worried whether or not I will lose my stuff in NOLA last week, a a major announcement came out from NASA that was pretty big. I mean, it may not to some of you non-nerds out there, but in the grand scheme of our advancement into the great unknown it is pretty big. All of it happening just two months after I started at JPL … so yep … it was me who found them.
The announcement is the first solar system that rivals our own was identified, and so full that up to seven (7) earth like planets orbit within a zone that could support life.
Finding planets outside of our solar system is a relatively new thing. It’s actually quite hard to find planets, mostly because planets don’t give off light and any of their effects could be dimmed by whatever star they circle. The only proven method to see them is to actually see a ‘dimming effect’ on stars – which basically means you stare at a star and if it grows darker then something got between you and the star, if it happens on a schedule then you can say it is something in orbit … like a planet. This method doesn’t really tell you much more about what those planets are; so they turn to higher powered telescopic instruments and try to collect more data. Up until recently, they best they can do was to ‘guess’ that a planet could be within what they call the “Earth Zone” … or where a planet could be the right distance away from it’s sun so it isn’t too hot or too cold to support life.
In 1999, a bunch of beer loving Belgiums (which should go without saying) were using a telescope who they rigged it’s name so they could use the acronym TRAPPIST (which is a popular kind of Belgium beer). As they were having a look around, they found a star in the Aquarius constellation that was a mere 39 light years away, and immediately they picked up that a couple planets were there. With that data, researchers from JPL pointed the Spitzer Orbiting Telescope to get a much better look. With that data, they could outright say that seven planets were in such a good location that they have water or had water … and for all of us beer lovers, we know where there is life there is water. The star is named TRAPPIST-1 after the original discovery; the planets have no names, only letter designations tied to the star (e.g. TRAPPIST-1b, 1c, 1d, etc).
Now before we start cranking up to make a run for TRAPPIST-1 and see who all lives there – keep in mind that 39 light years is an awful long way. Astronaut Scott Kelly (who got a nickname of Captain Buzzkill) tweeted that in order to make it to TRAPPIST-1 based on current propulsion technology would require us nearly 60,000 years to get there. A reasonable trip will require faster than light travel methods, like the stuff you see on Sci-Fi shows (I am a fan of improbability drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Additionally, we don’t know if we really got all the information correct to begin with. It’s not going to next year before the first real chance to get a good view will come when NASA sends up the James Webb Space Telescope; but that will still be five years before other ground based telescopes go live.
So we are a long way away from being anything other than being along way away.
All that being said, this is still a major announcement. The point of the whole process to look for these “exoplanets” is to look for the existence of life elsewhere. Not for the geeky concept of wanting to talk to little green men; but because there is no greater influence of learning about who we are than to find those who also exist and learn what makes us different. This discovery doesn’t mean that we found life outside of our lonely planet, but it does tell us where to start looking. So that’s what we will be doing.
Unless we are of course using Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a piece of ‘non-fiction’. There it describes the whole population of the Universe to be zero – since there is a finite number of planets with life, and the universe’s size is infinite; and common math tells you that dividing a finite number over infinity would result in Zero. To quote: “Although you might see people from time to time, they are most likely products of your imagination.”
Now get back to work.