Overview of the Recent Exoplanet Discovery

By: Zack Duvall

NASA’s announcement Wednesday, making official the discovery of 7 planets orbiting the star TRAPPST-1, is continuing to be the talk of science and astronomy circles, and the excitement is only growing within the science community.

This is because of the 7 newly discovered planets discovered by astronomers, 3 are within what scientists call the “Goldilocks Zone”. This is the distance from a solar system’s star that is conducive to life and allows water to form on a rocky planets surface.

“The news is wonderful, and has been since last year, when the first three planets in this system were discovered.” Dimitar Sasselov said about the discovery. Sasselov is a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and one of the many scientists and astronomers enthusiastic about the find.

“This just confirms what we started theorizing already in the past two years. That our galaxy, our universe, are just full of places which could sustain life, and where life could emerge.”

According to scientists the newly discovered planets all appear to be rocky, which unlike gas planets, may in fact be able to support the elements needed for life.

David Kipping, an expert on exoplanets and an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University shared the consensus view among the science community regarding the discovery, saying his first reaction to the news was to be “extremely excited”.

“As far as we know right now, I’d say there no show-stoppers to stop life from living on these worlds.” He said in an interview about the announcement.

As excited as astronomers and scientists are about the TRAPPIST-1 star and the planets that orbit around it, there are still a lot of questions to be answered in the search for the answer to the question of whether or not these planets could, or do, sustain life.

These questions include whether or not TRAPPIST-1, a red dwarf star, has ever emitted harmful levels of radiation that would impact the development of life on the planets orbiting it. Astronomers also have to confirm if the planets are in fact “rocky”and have orbits that are conducive to the creation of life.

If the answer to those questions lead astronomers to believe that the planets could in fact sustain life, the next step would be to begin looking for actual bio signatures, with the James Webb space telescope’s launch in 2018 playing a vital role in any search for these potential bio signatures.

Lisa Kaltenegger, director of The Carl Sagan Institute, said astronomers would also potentially have to look at ultra-violet light levels, noting that if levels were too high life would only be able to shelter in hypothetical oceans or large bodies of water. She continued on to say that the search for life was a numbers game and the discovery made her feel “motivated” about the odds.

“I think finding many planets, multiple habitats, around one start is great news for the search for life. That just means we’re getting more places to look. It’s just a numbers game- we already have a lot of stars with planets, now if we have a couple of planets per star, the odds are ever in our favor, hopefully.” She said regarding the fact that this discovery is the most time so many earth-sized planets were found to be circling the same sun.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate said during the initial NASA press conference that it is only a matter or time before humans discover a “second Earth”.

“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when.” He told attendees of the press conference held at NASA headquarters Wednesday.

Astronomers already know or roughly 3,449 exoplanets, but only a small number meet the requirements that many in the science community agree need to be met to sustain any form of life.

At any rate, scientists, astronomers, and space enthusiasts have a lot to be excited about. The discovery of exoplanets is becoming somewhat of a “norm” according to experts. However, this new discovery may be the start of a trend in findings that support the theory that there are many solar systems in our universe supporting numerous “Earth-like” planets just waiting to be discovered.


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