The Poly Spotlight

March 20th, 2017
Scientists discover a new dwarf-star system

HABITABLE: NASA telescope reveals earth-like planets that could potentially support life. 

By Andrew Carlson, Staff Writer

In February 2017, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and scientists around the world announced the discovery of seven rocky planets orbiting around a dwarf star approximately 12 times smaller than the sun. The star, entitled TRAPPIST-1A, is about 40 light years(235 trillion miles) away from our sun. Located in the Aquarius constellation, scientists consider this system, in the constellation Aquarius, to be relatively close to us, and are launching a ground-based telescope in 2018 called the James Webb Space Telescope to further investigate the new planets’ chemical compositions. 

This discovery was originally reported by Michaёl Gillon, of the University of Liege, Belgium, and his group of scientists in 2016, when they found the planets by examining the light that emitted from TRAPPIST star, which faded at regular intervals. As a result of this, Gillon and his team realized that something must pass in front of the star. Additional study of the light allowed them to discover the planets, as well as the planets’ orbits and size.  Based on astronomer Greg Laughlin’s definition of an earth-like planet, these planets are potentially habitable.  Laughlin claims that “a planet that is close to Earth’s radius and which receives a similar energy flux from its parent body” is earth-like. 

Despite being earth-like, the TRAPPIST planets do have some differences that set them apart from Earth. In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star is cool enough for liquid water to theoretically survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. In addition to their proximity to their star, the newfound planets have orbits very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could look up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.  

The planets may not also rotate on its axis, like Earth does. This means that one side is day, and one is night. This would result in weather changes unlike anything ever experienced on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from day to night, and abrupt temperature changes.  

NASA has also opened up polls to the public in regard to possible names for the seven planets. They have received thousands of results, ranging from the names of the seven dwarfs to the names of historic people in the NASA program. While the suggestions may be taken into consideration, the International Astronomical Union makes the final decision.  

This discovery has revolutionized astronomical studies and increased the possibility of life outside Earth.

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