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Many people have yearned for a place among the stars, and finally, they don’t have to go millions of lights years away. They won’t even need 100 years traveling time or three generations to reach a new planet, thanks to the newly discovered Trappist – 1 system found in the Aquarius constellation.

TRAPPIST’s HARP instrument glided along its carbon fiber beams, enclosing its massive mirror into the depths of the universe. At 7874 feet, this was one of the 300 clear nights at the La Silla Observatory. Astronomer Michael Gillon and his team were doing a routine search, not much of a job, scrutinizing a tiny red dwarf star by the name of 2MASS J23062928-0502285 through their triple monitor desks. It was August 5th 2016 and the team was frustrated over TRAPPIST 1-d’s randomized orbital period. Gillon was not excited about it, but was curious why the planet did not have a structured year sequence. A planet with an aimless cycle was never heard of. It takes at least millions of years for a planet to change their pattern slightly, nevertheless over the course of two days. If this was really only one planet, it must be assaulted by cosmic debris to disturb its path. Another transit has happened in the same day. This was starting to become a bizarre finding.

 

The team was confused as well. Astrophysicist Emmanuel Jehin, also leader of the crew, had urged Gillon to consider having Spitzer take a look. They obliged, and the same outcome. Something was definitely wrong. Spitzer, one of the best telescopes the world has to offer, has been stumped. But as Gillon and his team sat frustrated, they remembered the limitations of satellites peering that far. There was an old way to discover planets- but a reliable one. Gillon decided then to have his team use transit photometry and spectral classification, a method used when a photo is taken and individual colors are split into a bar of chromaticity. The array the coloring is placed shows what the composition of its atmosphere is, or the temperature. And, analyzing the star, the team conveyed the light into a spectrograph. The results were perplexing. There were more than two cool spots intercepting the light from the sun and the telescope. In fact, there were five. At the frame rate they shot this picture in, there was no possible reason the same planet should show up five times. At this moment, it was clear this red dwarf held more than one planet.

“It was completely unexpected. Trappist-1 is only 8% the size of our Sun, so it’s really, really small. We don’t understand how a small star like that managed to form so many planets”

– Professor Brice-Olivier Demory at Switzerland’s University of Bern

Gillon then requested the Liverpool Telescope and UKIRT to support observation from the ground to fill in the gaps in observation coverage. On September 19th, Spitzer analyzed the star system for a continuous 20 days, alongside TRAPPIST and UKIRT. And, in the days inspecting the red dwarf, the first transit of TRAPPIST 1-H is recorded. The system, then named 2MASS J23062928-0502285, was dubbed TRAPPIST-1, the first new star system discovered by the telescope, jokingly named after the beer company, Trappist breweries.

Life in another solar system

 

There are many strange planets out there, planets we thought to be impossible. Impossible is right: TrEs 2B, an exoplanet orbiting the star GSC 03549-02811. Located 750 light years away from the Solar System, this planet only reflects a mere 1% of the light it is given by its host star. 55 Cancri E, also named Janssen, is an exoplanet closely orbiting its host star 55 Cancri A. The mass of the exoplanet is about 8.63 Earth masses, and is two times bigger than our earth. The catch? It possesses a pure diamond core. Going there would bankrupt the global economy a whopping 758 billion times. but  Compared to these planets, why would Trappist be so special? The answer any astronomer would tell you- the rarity. Weird and strange planets can be hard to find, but forget it when it comes to a second earth. The probability of one earth like planet is the same as one blindfolded man roaming all the beaches in the world, and picking the right grain of sand. The chance of finding a body in the cosmos like ours is second to none. But, facing this level of odds, we stumbled upon Trappist. Three earth like planets in one system. This absolutely destroys the theory of chance. But luck isn’t what’s exciting us – it’s the plausibility of life existing somewhere else.

A representation of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system showing which of the planets might be habitable.

According to Gillon, leader of the scientist team who discovered Trappist-1, three of the seven are located in a “habitable zone” of their star, in which liquid water is possible. The planets are more than likely to have an atmosphere which could possibly allow protection from meteorites, breathability, and greenhouse gases capability. These perfect atmospheres could be one of the greatest possibilities in store for interstellar habitation. Still, the planets seem to be “tidal locked”. That means that unlike Earth, one side of the planet is always facing the star and the other one isn’t. If this would happen here, this would mean we would either always have day here in Paso or night. We could have sleeping stations on the night face, and work out in the daylight for jobs. In certain places, just possibly- we could have a beach with a permanent sunset. For the inhabitants of these planets, the species could be completely different for only nocturnal (only active at night) animals, or diurnal (the daytime counterpart) would perhaps be genuinely different. But, if too close, the tidal lock on could have disastrous effects. If a planet had made the mistake of orbiting too close to its star, tidal locked, half of it would be turned into a molten soup. Constant lava floes, acid rain and a poisonous, roasting atmosphere. Which, of  course, narrows the possibility of the tidal locking to be beneficial to these planets. The question about life is still speculation, as scientists are still learning on what habitable is. The origin of life could have gone on multiple different crossroads. “And even If there isn’t , then we have learned something quite deep about where life can emerge,” Gillon said.

 

“If you were on the surface of one of these planets, you would have a wonderful view of the other planets,”

– Michaël Gillon

 

 

 

What we could do to get there

 

Interstellar travel has been one of the subjects listed as “impossible” since travelling such distances would require unfathomable amounts of speed that humans were not made to endure. But within the small limits of space travel, it can be mathematically feasible. We, as the human race, have gone from horse drawn carriages to the Saturn v rocket in less than 500 years. And from seven miles per second shuttles, we have introduced the ten miles per second new horizons satellite. While we propelled particles to close to the speed of light in the lab, we’re still stewing over to even accelerate spacecraft to over and above three percent of that. But, with these struggles, we find inspiration. And from the mind-bending, record-smashing speed of new horizons, we are able to come up with methods of going even faster. It is hard to get across your mind as a theory of propulsion- a laser-propelled sail. This new prototype is proposed propel a spacecraft to an unheard-of 30 percent the speed of light, from photons reflecting off a thin sheet of carbon fiber, aerogel, or a new material named Arovex, which is carbon fiber comprised of carbon nanotubes and graphene (a sheet of carbon only one atom thick). These lightweight materials are sought after in terms of space travel, meaning less expenses for takeoff, and atmospheric launches that will require less from engines. Lets just hope that the candidates for space travel don’t weigh so much that all the lightweight technology wouldn’t make a difference.

 

But creating a propulsion fast enough to reach Trappist-1 isn’t the only variable: manipulating the fabric of space is an idea thought to be unimaginable, but there is one theory that is being widely accepted among futurists: the alcubierre warp drive. This approach is thought of to be a stretch in spacetime in the form of a wave, causing the spacetime in front of the ship to contract and the space behind it to expand. Forming something like a wave you can surf. It shortens the distance between what is in front of you and the actual ship, and lengthens the time and distance in what is behind you. So if you walked around with this, you would see the world stretch behind you and the five mile sidewalk in front of you be reduced to five centimeters, and take the same amount of time to cross that five centimeters. Placing that in front of a ship would cut the distance into a smidge of what it used to be to get there, but even this has limits. The bubble can only go as far as 12 miles across, meaning the 12 miles in front of you will turn into 6 feet instead of a million miles being turned into one foot. And another drawback- it would require incredible amounts of energy. And in this amount- only possible with nuclear fusion and third generation classes of it, since energy at molecular level will not cut it. The amount of energy the drive must possess is equivalent to the power of Jupiter squeezed into a small spacecraft the size of a car.

And another problem- there is an argument that once the warp drive is up and running, signals being transmitted in front of the rift in time cannot go through. Which will mean a total blackout of communication- and a frustratingly sketchy course if cosmic debris is in the way. But space exploration has always been a dangerous feat. obstacle recognition systems- through ultrasonic detection. The diodes inside of the device will emit sound waves moving at the very limit of the speed of sound- in our case on earth, we use regular wavelengths, but in order to move through space, a new kind of sound is required. Electromagnetic pulses are the reason we are able to send messages through space when sound is too dependent on bouncing off objects, and is used today for most of the communications in space. These devices can recognize objects approaching in split milliseconds, and alert the object avoidance systems to loosen the throttle, sinking the ship back towards the center of the warp drive, slowing down enough to alert the captain while the obstacle is still far away.

 

Now that the security in reaching supersonic speeds has been taken care of, we must look towards the effects of space travel on the human being: obstruction of bone matter. It is common knowledge to space agencies that traveling in the mass expanse of our own solar system will cause problems when we face microgravity (also known as zero gravity) at any rate putting the human body in situations it was not entitled to do. Blood pressure fluctuations happen- blood pools in the brain and the bones gradually become weaker. Astronauts exercise as much as they can, but nevertheless experience the symptoms of space sickness. Prescription drugs are taken to lessen the effects, but the astronauts need something that is not easily achieved in space. Artificial gravity.

 

There are multiple theories on how to acquire this essential force of nature, but only one has been widely accepted and proven to be successful. Centrifugal forces are a strange coercion between a circular motion of the floor beneath your feet and the opposing force pushing you towards the center. Think of it this way- when you hold a bucket upside down, the contents inside will spill, and you were not able to keep the liquid inside. But swinging the bucket in a circular motion- arcing it above your head, and the water stays inside. Here, we have gravity to fight, but in space this effect is much more efficient. Futurists have used this idea for designs of starships- gargantuan cylinders that corkscrew through space. These biodome style “spinning geostructures” place all of the gravity affected items on the inside facing towards the center. It is as if you were riding in that one fair ride where they have you stand up against a wall and, when it starts spinning, you can’t peel yourself off. The streets in the neighborhoods will be reminiscent of inception, arcing above your head and running down to your feet again. And walking the entire distance, now 90 degrees upside down from where you started, and still be able to keep your coffee from spilling. It will be strange, however, seeing that the ground you are walking on will also serve as your ceiling. It is easy to imagine jumping in this state and floating back a couple of feet, but since you have matched momentum, you will stay in the same place. The same theory is for jumping on top of a running vehicle. Most people imagine falling off, but since your speed is the same as the car you are standing on, it is as if you are leping on top of a stationary vehicle. Yet one problem- space. After all, playing baseball could be very finicky if your home run smashes a window right above you.

 

Is it worth going?

 

This discovery is exciting- even among adolescents and teens. At Paso Robles high school, the topic strikes 71% of the students as positive that the sighting is important. Although there is a low interest in astronomy (roughly 13%), the encounter is deemed important among news outlets and social media. Movies, such as the martian, interstellar, and the arrival, and other media planted ideas in high schoolers minds about planet colonization. The thought of future settlement on a different planets can be possible one day, and planet-hopping is possible, warp drives are common, and starships vary as much as cars. Artificial intelligence capable of doing more than frustrating you, and fridges that can handle your billing. It sounds as though anything is possible. But with incredible leaps in technology, controversy can slither in from every corner. Pushes what seems to be better for our economy can have its weak points, such as draining the tax money from other important regulations or services. When an idea is proposed, the opposition will of course find a way to overturn it. If the city wants faster trains, they get taxed, and some will complain of the rise in prices. Restricting usage of property or supplies for future development can cause tremors with people’s ideology and cause conflict. But, as in all places of the human perspective, there is common ground. For essential materials keeping the urban domain, functioning as water, electricity, and reconstruction.

An artistic representation of what the view from Trappist-1 created by NASA.

Space is a controversial topic, since there have been budget cuts to many of its programs. After the excitement of the moon mission died down, we resumed to the problems down at earth with the cold war and conflict with the middle east. Terror attacks rocked the nation. Interstellar travel started to lose its glow, with the human race content on how much it already knows. We know we were a perfect planet. we couldn’t help but fantasize about alien life. But, as black dots orbiting a pulsar were spotted in orbit around a pulsar star, scientists were beginning to regain their momentum. Extrasolar planets were on the verge of discovery. The search for mapping the night sky had continued scrutinized by astronomers, but with the public- they continued almost as if it never happened.

 

The day for exoplanets had dawned on the morning of October the sixth, 1999. A confirmed planet was spotted orbiting a main sequence star named 51 pegasi. In a rush for naming it in the analog system, the astronomers decided to leave it at 51 pegasi B, which is the same procedure taken when there is a second star in a binary orbit. The media covered it so broadly that at least half the world knew about it in a week. Public interest in space deepened, and the idea of interstellar exploration was deemed intriguing. Exoplanets and other cosmic material were disclosed on mainstream media, such as the binary pulsars PSR B1913+16, or the hulse-taylor binary. which had won russell hulse and joseph hooton taylor a Nobel prize back in 1993. Supernovas, magnetars, exomoons and other universal phenomena has gained the interest of millions across the globe.

 

Now, interesting discoveries such as TRAPPIST-1 and 55 cancri e (diamond planet) are publicized in classrooms, news magazines, social media and cable news. However, even with the new wave of publicity for extraterrestrial matters, exploration for it has collapsed. The ISS still orbits our planet, satellites are still being sent up, but massive space agencies have been disbanded. NASA, the russian space agency, and the DLR, a german branch of the european space agency. With nearly 8-in-10 people favorable to nasa, (78%, pew research center) the agency will likely receive funding in the future. Following the great space race of the 60’s and 70’s, another spike in technological advancement will be the next leap for human colonization – mars. The desolate red sandbox has its doubts for hosting life, however, with its highly radioactive soil, lack for magnetic field, and thin atmosphere.

 

Which is an indicator of how precise these planets must be to host life. In the beginning, it was theorized that mars and Venus were covered in liquid water. Venus likely overplayed its greenhouse gas, while mars grew sleepy and stopped its magnetic field, allowing the sun’s radiation to scalp it of its atmosphere. The only survivor out of the three was earth, who had the perfect balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and temperature, magnetic field and refraction needed to host life. One small misstep and a planet could have no hope of colonization. With TRAPPIST-1, we are seeing three planets in the habitable zone all over again. However, the outside variables are not pushed to the limit as Venus and mars are. These planets are not being assaulted by their host star, and not losing mass at a rapid rate. The estimation of mass loss per year can tell us from far away the power of the protective magnetic field, or if it possesses one at all.

An infographic representing the most important facts about TRAPPIST-1.

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