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Are They Just Right? The Discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System and Their ‘Goldilocks’ Potential

In the past several months science educators teaching astronomy and space exploration probably haven’t needed a lot to motivate science students who are endlessly fascinated with the possibility of life outside our own planet. The recent discovery of seven planets around TRAPPIST-1 (a star named for the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope in Chile) has provided teachers new seeds to plant into the imagination of young minds interested in exoplanetary discovery. eLibrary can help feed that imagination with loads of resources.

In May 2016 researchers in Chile reported in the journal Nature the discovery of three planets with sizes and temperatures similar to Venus and Earth orbiting around an ultra-cool dwarf star just 40 light-years away in the Aquarius constellation. Earlier this year NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, along with the Very Large Telescope Array at Paranal in Chile, confirmed two of those planets, and then found five more exoplanets. Of the seven, three are presently believed to fall within the habitability zone (the ‘goldilocks’ zone), that area around a star in which rocky planets may hold liquid water and harbor life.

TRAPPIST-1, the star which these planets orbit, is classified as an ultra-cool dwarf. The star is so cool that water in liquid form could exist on planets that are even closer in orbit than Mercury is to our sun. In the years to come, if further observations reveal oxygen in any of the planet’s atmosphere, which could point to photosynthesis of plants, there is a good probability life can exist on these planets.

eLibrary has recent news information on this discovery as well as Research Topics on exoplanets, habitable planets, and general information on astronomy, cosmology, and space exploration that can help your students dive deeper into the questions of life existing elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond.

Here are some things scientists know thus far about TRAPPIST-1 and its planets:

  1. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planet’s orbit is closer than Mercury’s orbit around our sun.
  2. TRAPPIST-1 is much cooler and redder than the sun, and only slightly larger than Jupiter, which is about a tenth of the size of the sun.
  3. Because the planets are so close to TRAPPIST-1, all seven planets appear to be in a gravitational lock. That is, one side of each planet permanently faces the star, just as our moon is gravitationally locked and we only see one side of it.
  4. One year on the closest planet orbiting TRAPPIST-1 is equal to just 1.5 earth days. The farthest planet’s yearly orbit is equal to 18.8 earth days.
  5. If you were standing on one of the planets, each of the other planets would appear prominently in the sky, and at times appearing much larger than the moon does in our sky.
  6. TRAPPIST-1 is a mere 40 light-years away. In layman’s terms, that’s still 235 trillion miles away.

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