Astronomy is “above the fold” today!

nyt

Astronomy is front and center today, appearing “above the fold” on the front page of The New York Times. Unless you’ve been spacing out, already know about the discovery of seven earth-sized planets orbiting the relatively nearby (39 light years) star TRAPPIST-1. What you might not know is what it all means. TRAPPIST-1 is only the second known star to host a stellar system of seven planets, and also has (by far) the largest number of small, rocky, earthlike planets. While the inner three planets (dubbed b, c, and d) are probably too hot for liquid water to be prevalent, and the outermost (called h) is too cold, the other three (e, f, g) are, to steal from Goldilocks, “Just Right.” But before you start packing for a visit, you should know that there is a big difference between this star system and our own, namely the star itself! TRAPPIST-1 is barely a star, what we call an “ultra cool red dwarf.” It is barely massive enough to “shine,” to create energy via nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium (the actual definition of a true star). At only 8% the mass of our sun, this is surely no “superstar!” In order for these planets to be in the Goldilocks zone (also called the habitable zone), they are so close to their star that they are almost certainly tidally locked. This means that they always keep one side facing the star (in eternal daylight) while the other side is always facing away (in eternal night – sounds like a vampire paradise, doesn’t it?). This means that IF the planets have atmospheres, their climates are pretty darned complicated, to say the least. But regardless of whether or not TRAPPIST-1’s planets really could support life as we know it, they have taught us an extremely important lesson, one that Copernicus himself tried to instill in us – we are NOT the center of the universe, and we should never make the mistake of thinking that our “normal” is the same as every other star system’s “normal.” Variety really is the spice of life, at least as far as the universe is concerned.

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