Posts Tagged ‘Planets’

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.

Pluto Officially Named on March 24, 1930

2005 NASA Photo of Pluto and its satellites

Pluto and Its Moons
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Poor Pluto. Imagine being a planet for 76 years and then all-of-a sudden finding yourself relegated to the status of just another “dwarf planet” or “plutoid” in the Kuiper Belt. Well, that’s what you get for being 4.7-billion miles away from the decision makers.

Pluto was officially named on this day (March 24) in 1930 after being discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh on February 18 of that same year. The path toward its discovery is credited to Percival Lowell who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and funded three separate searches for the elusive “Planet X.”

The name Pluto, after the god of the underworld, was suggested by young Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England, who was interested in classical mythology. The moniker was soon embraced by wider culture. Walt Disney was apparently inspired by Tombaugh’s discovery when he introduced Mickey Mouse’s canine companion Pluto in the cartoon “The Chain Gang” in 1930.

Discovered Pluto in 1930

Clyde W. Tombaugh
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

1914 Photo of Percival Lowell

Percival Lowell at the Lowell Observatory
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]








From the time of its discovery in 1930 to 2006, Pluto was considered to be the ninth planet in our solar system, but because additional (and larger) objects have been discovered, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto and the other objects as dwarf planets. (Pluto will always be a planet to me!)

Pluto is usually farther from the Sun than any of the eight planets; however, due to the eccentricity of its orbit, it is closer than Neptune for 20 years out of its 249-year orbit. On July 14, 2015, the Pluto system is due to be visited by a spacecraft for the first time. NASA’s New Horizons probe will perform a flyby during which it will attempt to take detailed measurements and images of Pluto and its moons.

You can read all about Pluto and other closer (or more distant) objects by searching eLibrary’s list of Research Topics or by searching Magazines, Encyclopedias and Multimedia.

Keep your eyes on the skies.

Here are just a few eLibrary  space-related Research Topics & publications:

Astronomy Magazine                    Astronomy Research Topic

DK Eyewitness Space                   Earth Research Topic

The Moon                                         Observatories Research Topic

Pluto Loses Planetary Status       Space Exploration Research Topic

Stars Research Topic                     Telescope Encyclopedia Article