What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets? Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible. The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun. It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy). Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement. These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us! The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky! It is a pretty compelling picture! Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.
I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years. Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).
Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics). However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.
Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp). Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh! I know where I want to escape to next February!