After last week’s headline-making announcement of the Trappist-1 star discovery, Second Nexus reached out to NASA scientist Dr. Tiffany Meshkat for a perspective of that breakthrough, and what it means for our place in the universe.
By Dr. Tiffany Meshkat, exoplanet scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The discovery of seven planets around the Trappist-1 star is a very exciting discovery, and the first time so many Earth-sized planets have been discovered in one system. Exoplanet scientists have discovered more than 3,000 exoplanets, and each new discovery allows us to learn more about the diversity of planets and systems. We have yet to find another planetary system identical to our own solar system, but we have found a large range of interesting planets of different sizes and ages which will ultimately shed light on our understanding of the planets in our solar system.
This star will be the focus of future observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope as well as the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch next year. With these observations, astronomers hope to be able to understand the atmosphere of these planets. We search for biomarkers in these atmospheres which we believe might indicate life; however, it will only be an indirect indication. It will take many years of observations and new instruments to say more conclusively if a planet definitely has life as we know it. For certain exoplanets, we suspect they cannot harbor life given the extremely hot or cold conditions.
The Trappist-1 seven planet discovery allows us to understand the diverse range of exoplanetary systems that can exist. Astronomers now believe that every star in the sky has at least one planet, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope results, and so we expect that these discoveries of new and interesting exoplanetary systems will continue. It is interesting to note that on some of the Trappist planets, on closest approach the other planets in the Trappist system can appear similar in size to the moon viewed from the Earth. It must be a spectacular sight to be able to see these neighboring planets so large in the sky.
Astronomers now know that these planets exist and we know their masses and sizes. We don’t yet know what is in the atmosphere of these planets, and so a lot of telescopes will be observing this star in the next few years to try and characterize these planets. The James Webb Space Telescope (launching next year) will be a powerful tool to search for the atmospheric components of these planets. These measurements may take several years to be completed and for now, we cannot predict what we will find.
As an astrophysics researcher, I find the search for planets around other stars to be particularly exciting and moving. It allows us to understand more how our own solar system formed and if the earth is unique or common in the galaxy. Knowing that there are so many other planetary systems gives us an important perspective on our place in the universe.