Right now, TRAPPIST-1 is getting a ton of attention. If feels like just about every single telescope on Earth or in Earth-orbit has been stealing glances of this very tiny star and its seven Earth-like planets.
But we’ve discovered lots of other exoplanets, many of them Earth-like, and many of them in multi-planet systems. So why is TRAPPIST-1 getting so much special attention?
There Could Be Aliens!
Okay, yes. There could be aliens.
But I doubt it. TRAPPIST-1 is a flare star. We’ve met flare stars before. You don’t want to live near one.
Also, these planets are so close to their parent star that they are almost certainly tidally locked, with one side perpetually facing the sun and the other side perpetually turned away from it. Katy Perry could write a song about how hot and cold these planets must get.
Still, it’s not impossible for life to evolve under these conditions. Just don’t get your hopes up.
An Astrophysicist’s Dream Come True
There’s still a lot I haven’t read yet about TRAPPIST-1, and no doubt there’s even more information still to come. But at this point, I’m getting the impression that this miniaturized solar system is like an astrophysicist’s dream come true. Here’s why I think that:
- From our vantage point here on Earth, these planets pass directly in front of their star (i.e.: they “transit” their sun). This is convenient for us. It’s a lot easier to collect data about transiting planets than non-transiting ones.
- These planets are all very close to their parent star, and therefore they all have relatively short orbital periods. That means more transits and more opportunities to collect data.
- There are so many planets so tightly packed together that it’s easy for us to study the gravitational interactions between them.
- And again, because these planets have short orbital periods, these gravitational interactions are sort of accelerated compared to similar interactions in our own Solar System or in other star systems we’re currently observing. I imagine these interactions are also much stronger, since the planets are so much closer together.
TRAPPIST-1 is basically a mini-solar system running on fast-forward. We can collect loads of data about it in a matter of days or weeks, rather than years or decades, and use that data to refine our current theories about solar system dynamics.
That, I think, is the real reason TRAPPIST-1 and its seven planets are such a big deal. At least that’s what’s got me the most excited about them, and why I think we’ll be hearing a lot about the TRAPPIST-1 system for many years to come.
If we happen to discover alien life there as well, that’ll just be an added bonus.