For centuries the scientific community has been exploring the mysteries of our universe to determine if the 7 billion inhabitants of the blue planet, or earth, as we all know it, are alone or whether there are other forms of life anywhere else in the universe? It could still be generations later that some of our great grandchildren may have the opportunity to migrate to another planet in search of greener pastures. Last week, Nasa scientists came up with a mind boggling discovery pointing to a new solar system comprising of at least three planets that look like the Earth with a climate that just could support life. The scientists opine that these are planets that a certain ET could have described as their ‘home’.
While it is too early to think of packing your bags, here are some associated details which you could still relish and run riot with your imagination.
Astronomers, as a breed, are not very receptive to hyperbole, but there has been a flurry of excitement and frenzy last week when an international team with the help of advanced telescopes at a far flung location in space around the globe discovered what is known as ‘holy grail’.
These new planets, intriguing as they are, are also our close neighbours, in relative terms, at about 39 light years away (not so close! Remember Elon Musk). For avid astronomers, that is indeed relative proximity and scanners, telescopes loaded with ultra sophisticated capabilities and Euro solar panels, tested by top-performing manufacturers, will help them focus on these planets and confirm the presence or otherwise of water and benign atmosphere that is essential to support life as we know it on the earth.
Associate administrator at Nasa Thomas Zurbuchen states that the question whether ‘we are alone’ is being answered now, during this decade and the decades to come. He adds that the present story provides a hint that it is rather a question of when we find the second earth and not if we will find it. For long, scientists have speculated about the existence of life supporting planets somewhere in our universe. However, no confirmation of a potentially life-sustaining has yet been available.
The present revelation points to as many as seven planets, each of the size of the earth orbiting what they call TRAPPIST-1 which is a dwarf star, red and equaling our sun in size.
Theoretically, the seven planets are several billion years old, and all of them could have oceans and lakes. However, since these planets are pretty close to the star, it is unlikely that they have water because of the heat factor. The furthermost planet, however, is pretty cold. The greatest interest from the discovery is centred around three planets in the middle since they exist in what is known to be habitable ‘Goldilocks Zone’, meaning that they are neither too cold nor too hot for life to sustain. The temperature at the surface varies between 0 to 100 degrees Celsius, and therefore, water cannot boil and evaporate. Additionally, the planet ‘e’ is also significantly close in its size to that of our Earth and gets nearly the same amount of light from its star.
Speculation on life in the Trappist-1 system
While all the seven planets could possibly have water in liquid state, 3 of them have the ideal atmospheric condition to hold water on their surface in the form of oceans. Dr Amaury Triaud, the co-author of the study, says that the oceans could already have evolved life, but the researchers may not possibly know the stage at which this life could be. He added that what is known, however, is that, the star about half a billion years old and therefore it is likely that planets are also of the same age. So far there is no indication of liquid water or life in these worlds. The research team is now using larger telescopes to explore further the chances of finding signs of life.
New technologies for space travel
For long, engineers have explored several new technologies in space travel to reach the exoplanets lying outside our solar system. Storing sufficient conventional fuel for travelling across the interstellar distances without the challenge of a heavy spacecraft has always proved to be next to impossible. To cover several light years, we need spacecraft s with significantly higher speeds than what can be achieved with the technology available today.
But, now, some scientists are proposing new methods for transport without relying on conventional fuel used in rockets. A probe, the size of a soap using photon sails powered by radiation from the stars for propulsion through space at an amazing speed of 14 million meters /second was developed in early February this year. The weight of this probe is a mere 100 grams and just a few inches in dimension. Engineers had designed this to investigate a proximate exoplanet Proxima which is located about 4 light years from our Earth. The debatable question that remains, however, is whether this model can successfully be scaled up for carrying a human payload.
Another option scientists are putting forward is using nuclear detonation in space for propelling the spacecraft forward through shock waves at rapid speed.
Through this technology of nuclear pulse propulsion, nuclear weapons would not need to be detonated on the spacecraft itself and a pusher plate fitted on a long ship is expected to achieve the task. This way, weapons can be safely detonated from a distance behind the spacecraft, and the pusher plate can catch the shock wave.
The key take aways from the present discovery are:-
- The system is just about 39 light years away from the Earth
- Seven worlds, the size of our earth are orbiting the dwarf star called Trappist-1
- Six planets are situated in a temperate zone with surface temperature ranging from 0 to 100o C
- 3 of the seven newly discovered planets are believed to have oceans which enhance the possible existence of life
- Scientists opine that life could have evolved on 3 of these planets
- This is the only star system so far to have such a significant number of planets, the size of earth and possibly rocky too