Mars first, TRAPPIST-1 second

Published: February 24, 2017 - 16:44 Updated: August 4, 2017 - 16:24

The discovery of a habitable planet system 40 light years away is an exciting discovery but we need to figure out how to get to Mars first
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water. The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone. This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighbouring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

Over the past few decades as telescopes have become more powerful, astronomers have found plenty of planets which lie safely ensconced in habitable zones. In many ways these are eerie doppelgangers of earth. So with tens of hundreds of habitable planets being discovered within and outside our galaxy, the natural question that arises is: are we alone? Are there anthropomorphic aliens with long oval faces and slit like eyes laughing at Earth and its citizens? Do they trip on the fact that the most powerful country in the world Donald Trump as its president? The answer to those highly speculative questions is probably not. Planets need to be inhabited first for them to remain habitable. So even though early life forms may emerge on these exoplanets, their persistence may be rare. Extinction is the great cosmic default. If life could emerge spontaneously anywhere then we would be having wars between planets instead of countries. Star Wars would be a documentary instead of inventive fiction that made George Lucas insanely rich.

9,500,000,000,000 kilometres. That is the distance one has to cover to traverse one light year. As deceptive as the term a light year may sound, in actuality it is a humongous distance. How long would it take, using existing technology to travel 40 light years? As it turns out a lot of time, and the word lot is probably an understatement. New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, flew past Pluto in 2015 and is currently traveling out of the solar system at 14.31 kilometers per second, or about 32,000 mph, according to NASA's New Horizons tracking page. At this rate, it would take the Pluto probe about 8,17,000 years to reach TRAPPIST-1. Should humanity be enthused by this fact? Probably not. We are yet to figure out how to send human kind to Mars, Elon Musk and his enthusiasm notwithstanding. Be that as it may what Musk says is also true. The probable lifespan of human civilization will be much greater if we are a multi-planetary species. And for that we need to figure out how to get to Mars and eventually someday planet systems like TRAPPIST-1.