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Perhaps, This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

Photo Credit:  patheos.com

Photo Credit: patheos.com

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      These days many people are news weary. Each day some new scandal or some new debate over everything from bathrooms to war. But now there is some new news looming on the horizon, almost literally. Last Wednesday, February 22nd, NASA surprised the world and delighted science nerds around the globe with the news that they had discovered seven new exoplanets; an exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system.

Astronomers discovered these Earth-sized planets orbiting a star named Trappist-1 about 40 light years away (235 trillion miles) in the Aquarius constellation.  The scientists and astronomers who have been involved in this discovery believe that these planets have a rocky surface, compatible to the surface of earth, as opposed to planets like Saturn and Jupiter which are gas giants. This discovery is major news to anyone in the science field and to millions of sci-fi fans; but what is really exciting to many, is that six out of seven of these planets orbit in a temperate zone. This means that the surface of the planets range from 32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit and three of these planets are believed to be in a“potentially habitable zone and could have water, greatly increasing their chance of having life,” stated a press release from NASA. (https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around)

      According to NASA exoplanet expert, Aki Roberge, who is also a specialist in planet formation,”This is as excited as we get.” Roberge, who helps to plan future missions for NASA, says that there is valid reason for people to be excited. Roberge asserts that the most exciting thing about this discovery is that these planets are close enough that we are going to be able to study them. This attempt to study these planets will be even easier when the  James Webb Space Telescope is launched in October of 2018.

      The James Webb Space Telescope, JWST, is the Hubble’s successor. This new device is named after James Edwin Webb, who was an American government official who served as the second administrator of NASA from from 1961-1968. (https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/whois.html) This telescope is a powerful infrared telescope with a 6.5 meter primary mirror that can observe distant objects in the universe more so than any other current device. NASA will launch this scope on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in October of 2018 and by April of 2019 we are expected to see some significant data from this telescope. (http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2017/02/james-webb-space-telescope-to-probe-for-second-earth-among-weird-habitable-worlds-in-the-trappist-1-.html) One of the first things the JWST will do is to conduct follow-up obeservations of the TRAPPIST-1 dwarf star system, which is where these seven planets are located.

     At this time NASA will have the opportunity to actually be able to study the atmospheres of these planets, assuming that they have atmospheres. This means that the recent discovery is only the beginning. To some it may seem like every week there is a new discovery, so what makes this one so stellar? Roberge explains, “This is a smaller star, closer to us, and it’s got more planets-really tightly packed together. The closer the system is to our solar system- the more the star is like the Sun and the more the planet is like the Earth, the more likely we are to understand what we are looking at. That’s the difference,”Roberge concluded.

(https://www.forbes.com/sites/hilarybrueck/2017/02/26/nasa-just-discovered-seven-new-exoplanets-so-what/#ac5de6f70fc3)

     Nasa has noted the similarities these planets have to Earth and two of the most significant commonalities are the rocky surface that 6 out of 7 of these planets have and the fact that they are similar in size to the planet Earth. Having a rocky surface is important because the current belief among scientists is that this is the only type of surface that would provide a habitable environment. This means that scientists have reason to believe that  these planets might have an atmosphere thick enough to keep the planet warm but not thick enough to turn the planet into a gas giant.

Currently, scientist know very little and their first aim is to gather enough information to ascertain the radius and the exact size and mass of each of these heavenly bodies.  Unfortunately, not all scientists believe that these planets are habitable. Being rocky planets of a red dwarf star may not be a good place for life. Scientists really have no answers either way at this point. But some of these scientists remain doubtful.  NASA scientists have very little information on the environments outside of our solar system. As they learn more about these environments over the next decade it will be easier to speculate about what we might find on these planets. Whatever discoveries remain in the future, we do know that most of these objects are the right distance from a star to have liquid on their surfaces. This does not mean that there is water on these planets, it just means that they are in the right place to possibly have liquid. Researchers point to the fact that Earth, Venus, and Mars are all rocky planets in the “habitable zone”, yet they are drastically different. (http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2017/02/james-webb-space-telescope-to-probe-for-second-earth-among-weird-habitable-worlds-in-the-trappist-1-.html)

      The doubtful sentiments expressed by some NASA scientists are echoed by some Cape Henry Collegiate (CHC) students. For example, senior  Alexander Dingman feels, “This is pointless and it is a waste of time and money considering that these planets are light years away, and there is yet to be a spacecraft that can break the light barrier.” Dingman goes on to express the ideas that not only will none of us be here to see this, if it ever happens; but that the cost of  life, time, and expense does not justify further pursuits in these area.”

Yet other students share NASA’s enthusiasm, “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by other planets and the potential for extraterrestrial life…” states CHC senior Abe Porter.  Porter is certainly not alone and this is a part of what NASA is so energized about. This is the first time that NASA has really been in the position of looking at planets that might have habitable conditions for life outside of our solar system but close enough to study.

Roberge points out that Earth is unique in our solar system in one really important way: it is the only planet that has surface life so abundant that that life is affecting the atmosphere, even to the point that it is noticeable from interstellar distances. Thus “it is not really that that we think that Earth-like life is the only life that can be out there . It’s just the only life we can currently detect,” Roberge explains.(ibid)

     The thought of what other life is out there leads people to think about the possibility of not just is there other life out there, but are there other places where we can live? David Damuth, another senior CHC student weighs in on this thinking, “ I believe that living on another planet is plausible but there certainly would be some risks… I would be interested in trying life on another planet although it would be scary; it would also be exciting,” Damuth concludes.

      To Roberge and most scientists whether or not they agree on what may be potentially out there, they are all interested in what discoveries are in the near future. Roberge maintains, “ I think this would really bring it home to people that we have neighbors. I think a lot of people are used to thinking “Oh, exoplanets, those are all really distant.” As far as the laws of physics go, you could get to TRAPPIST-1 in a human lifetime (~40 years traveling at the speed of light). So it becomes more of an engineering problem than a laws of physics problem.”

     On a lighter note, another fascinating thing is just what are they going to name these planets. So far they are just identified as planets A-G. Popular astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson comically responds to this question. “Well since there are seven of them and they are dwarf planets, perhaps we should name them after the seven dwarfs instead of more technical or scientific sounding names.” http://www.ibtimes.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-reacts-nasa-discovery-astrophysicist-suggests-names-7-newly-2497545

 

Pictures

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/5_lineup_pia21422-png.png

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/1_main_pia21423-png.png

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around

 

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