Why are people so charmed by tiny things? Look at this tiny snake,
and these tiny goats.
Something about our minds sees small things and wants to nurture them. The larger the original object, the larger the tiny version. Look at this tiny elephant! Now, astronomical scales are slightly larger. Researchers announced in Nature magazine on Thursday that they have found a new solar system with seven new Earth-like exoplanets. It’s tiny! And by tiny I mean the whole solar system is just a little bigger than the size of Jupiter and its moons. See!
The star of this system is named TRAPPIST-1. Unfortunately, it’s not named after my second favorite beer, but rather for the telescope that first spotted it — the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST). TRAPPIST (the star) is about 8% the size of our sun, which is the size of Jupiter. If you can’t immediately picture that (how dare you), If our sun were the size of a basketball, this star would be the size of a golf ball. If only the planets were 8% the size of earth, that would be super cute. Unfortunately, all seven of them are earth sized. Fortunately for people who are looking for ET, this means they are far more likely to harbor life.
The reason this whole system is so small is that TRAPPIST-1 is a red super cool dwarf. Because it is so small and cool the seven planets orbit around it very closely. Who are these guys? The seven planets are creatively named TRAPPIST-1b (there is no TRAPPIST-1a), TRAPPIST-1c, TRAPPIST-1d, TRAPPIST-1e, TRAPPIST-1f, TRAPPIST-1g, and TRAPPIST-1h. I would say that astronomers have no creativity, but one of the many telescopes that spotted these guys is called the Very Large Telescope, and that’s hilarious.
The primary way these were found was through the transit method. This is when we watch a star, and by checking if the light dims we can deduce that there must be at least one planet passing in front of — or transiting — the star, blocking the light that reaches us. The last four planets were found using a telescope in space (the Spitzer space telescope) and more cool numerical methods.
Using the ratio of mass to size, they predict that they are all probably rocky like the Earth or Mars, instead of gaseous like Jupiter or Saturn. The fourth, fifth, and sixth (e, f, and g), are in the Goldilocks zone, which means they are not too cold, not too hot, but just right to have liquid water. They are all probably gravitationally locked with their sun, so only one side will ever face the sun, much like our moon. However, this doesn’t preclude life; for example, there could be a habitable zone around the light/dark ring. Also, an atmosphere could modulate the temperature enough to be livable.
The system is pretty close astronomically, only 40 light-years away, or 12 parsecs as a parsec is a unit of distance, not time.
While it is exciting that this could a potential Arrakis, the likelihood is that there aren’t any Fremen living there. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. As with most astronomy, this helps us learn a lot more about the universe around us and how we got here.
Besides, there might be Time Lords!