There is one thing that sets our planet apart from the thousands now discovered by scientists: it’s the only one known to support life. The question on whether we are alone or not has burned within the hearts of many, from scientists to science fiction writers. We fantasize of what life would be like outside our own planet, but we have yet to discover anything that suggests it does exist. Expeditions to Mars have yet to yield any conclusive evidence. Are we truly alone in the universe? While difficult to determine given the power of current technology, a recent discovery suggests that there might be places for life far beyond the confines of our own world.
This week NASA presented a remarkable announcement: the existence of a solar system not too far from our own host to several Earth-like planets. Within the system are seven terrestrial worlds revolving around a rather unremarkable red dwarf star. However unremarkable, the system is home to three worlds found within the star’s habitable zone. Three worlds. Our yellow Sun is host to only one world capable of nurturing life.
The system, dubbed TRAPPIST-1 after the telescope that was used to make the discovery, is one of few wherein every planet could have liquid water, one of the most basic constituents of life (as far as we know). While that may be the case, only three have the highest potential to host life. Astrobiologists want to recreate the potential atmospheric situations of these worlds to determine whether life, the way we understand it, could exist. More careful observations need to be done to analyze the atmospheric composition of each of the three worlds, as well as running simulations. The highly anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope could help us determine if these worlds have enough oxygen and methane. The two, alongside water, make up a holy trinity of chemical ingredients that could point to life.
According to NASA, this is merely a preliminary survey that will still include multiple phases of research using the Hubble as well as the future James Webb telescope. There will also be a survey of the atmosphere using spectroscopic methods.
“We will look at atmospheres effectively in different wavelengths, allowing us to get the composition, temperature, pressure,” said Julien de Wit, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, and an author of the new TRAPPIST-1 paper. “This will allow us to constrain habitability.”
Our galaxy is home to an ever increasing list of exoplanets. Yet, because of our limited technological capacities, it may be very difficult to fully determine the existence of any life outside our own world. Many scientists theorize that life may be different in other worlds. Our Earth is home to carbon-based lifeforms, but certain scientists have come up with models for silicon or nitrogen-based life.
It may be a while until we are able to send anything to fully survey the surfaces of these worlds, but the prospect of life beyond our own solar system is exciting and is nothing short of the stuff of science fiction. Space is the final frontier, and just like explorers of old who brought back strange creatures from distant lands, we may see a day when astronauts bring back samples of life, simple or advanced.