This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life.
Via NASA.gov: This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have discovered that there are seven Earth-size planets in the system. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Almost immediately after I launched a blog on my site (Hi, welcome!), NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star in the Aquarius constellation, approximately 40 light years away. This discovery thrills the Young Astronaut in me (I will find my nerdiest Young Astronaut picture and upload it just for you), but it also feels like a much-needed win for science and the scientific community in our new political landscape. The star these seven planets orbit around is smaller and cooler than our sun so the temperate zone of the star is larger than the temperate zone of our solar system. Three of the seven planets are in the habitable zone, an area near enough to the star that liquid water won't freeze and far enough away from the star that it won't boil. Finding planets in the habitable zone is the first step to finding other lifeforms or in potentially colonizing other planets. The mind reels at the possibilities from this first announcement.
I'm relieved that I'm not the only one imagining far away worlds already after only learning this news - oh - about an hour and a half ago. Check out this fantastic tourism poster that NASA released with the announcement showing travel to the Trappist-1 planets: "Voted best 'HAB-zone' vacation." You're so dreamy, NASA, never change.
AND ANOTHER THING! This is NASA employing artists - truly employing them as paid laborers - to communicate important and exciting scientific information to a lay audience. This is how STEM becomes STEAM in the real world. Without these wonderful, humorous, and rich images, the announcement would be harder to interpret. It would still be monumental, of course, but it may not have been as accessible to as many audiences. This is how visual literacy and scientific knowledge work seamlessly together. This is how you excite the next generation of astronomers. Ok, soapbox away for now. (For now.)
The concept of a habitable zone is really what struck me today. I think about homes and habitats a lot in my work and felt a sort of familiarity with the idea of a habitable zone around a star. This, my mind flashed, is the very bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, not just shelter, but the lowest limit to what is physiologically possible to sustain human life: liquid water, a temperate climate, the presence of oxygen. These needs seem so simple, so basic, and yet so impossible to find elsewhere. For all of the variations of shelter and culture that I study in the very limited geographic and temporal boundaries of my work in the 20th century United States, for all of the variations of shelter and culture here on Earth, for all of our long and short human history, all we really need are these few chemical compounds, these perfect building blocks that we've never seen like this elsewhere.
Astronomers have made the latest discovery based on tracking flashes of light in super-powered telescopes. While I'm envisioning scenes like the artist renderings above, these brilliant minds are probably measuring minuscule flashes of light over long periods of time. There's a lot of math involved, I'm sure of it. Next, NASA will launch the James Webb telescope in 2018 to investigate the potential for life on these planets. The telescope will be able to detect chemical compounds like water, methane, and oxygen, and will be able to measure the temperatures of the planets. This telescope is our best and only bet for information since, as of today, it would take us about 800,000 Earth years to travel to these new planets. Eight. Hundred. Thousand. The habitable zone: so simple, so impossible.
Read more about Trappist-1 and memorize all the discoveries like I already have here:
Michelle Everidge Anderson centers "home" as a place and a concept in her work to tell stories about American families.