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The TRAPPIST-1 System and Life on Other Planets

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By Andrea Strock, MNS
Faculty, College of Science, Engineering and Technology

Since 1995, NASA has discovered close to 3,500 exoplanets. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than our own sun. On Feb. 22, 2017, NASA held a news briefing out of their headquarters in Washington, DC announcing that astronomers had discovered a set of seven more exoplanets using a global network of telescopes.

This pronouncement has gotten a lot of buzz from the media in the last few weeks because of several rare factors aligning on these planets to make them special. All of the planets are roughly the size of Earth. This is the first time we have found so many planets of this kind orbiting the same star, and this is the first time we have found multiple planets in a habitable zone around their star that potentially promise the survival of life.

Researchers are already planning their next decade of studies on these seven planets in upcoming missions, and they are optimistic that they will be able to see fairly clearly the planets and their atmospheres given the fact that they are orbiting a super-cool dwarf star that is fairly quiet. This lack of intense starlight and solar flares, makes the planets better suited for scientists to detail their atmospheres.

The exoplanets, collectively known as the TRAPPIST-1 system, are all roughly the same size as Earth, ranging from 0.76 times Earth’s radius to 1.13 times Earth’s radius. Scientists have not been able to determine the mass of the planets yet, but they are all closer to their dwarf star than Mercury is to our Sun, and it appears that three of them could have surface temperatures that range between the freezing point and boiling point of water, 32 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which may allow water to exist.

Since water is such an essential facet to the existence of life, and since many people beg the question if we are alone in the universe, what is exciting about this set of seven planets is that we may have found planets where life can be supported.

But before you start packing your bags for an extraterrestrial adventure, you may want to consider the following. This system was discovered approximately 40 light years from Earth. A light year is a unit of distance used in astronomy to measure the distance light travels in one year. This distance has been found to be 9.4607 × 1012 km or roughly 6 trillion miles! Therefore, this particular system is approximately 2.351 x 1014 miles away! Even if you were able to travel in a shuttle that could go at a constant speed of 17,500 mph, and assuming that the space shuttle taking you to the TRAPPIST-1 system could maintain that speed the whole time, it would still take you over a million years to get there.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology helps students explore emerging fields in high-demand STEM areas. Learn more by visiting our website or contacting us using the Request More Information button at the top of the page.

More About Andrea:

Andrea Strock graduated from Arizona State University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical education and subsequently earned a Master of Natural Science (MNS) in Physics from Arizona State University in 2009. She finds the natural sciences incredibly intriguing and teaching them is her passion. Andrea is originally from New York, where she grew up watching her favorite sports teams and shows on Broadway. She is married to her husband and best friend, and together they have a daughter and a son. In her spare time she enjoys reading, baking, quilting and spending time with her family.