When NASA announced the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system in February 2017, humanity’s collective ears spiked. The system is made up of a dwarf star surrounded by seven “Earth-like” exoplanets at potentially habitable temperatures. If we want to know whether we’re alone in the universe or if we have company, the exploration of this planetary group may get us closer to an answer. Bill Nye explains some key signals NASA’s researchers will be looking for as they focus their intellect, and telescopes, towards this extraordinary next step in our history. Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye’s most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye: So with respect to the seven planets orbiting the star that was found by the TRAPPIST-1 program how cool is this. Seven planets closer to their ultra cool dwarf star than our planet Mercury is to our sun. And yet three of them apparently have a surface temperature suited to liquid water which immediately makes one wonder could there be living things there. And that would get to the deep question are we alone in the universe? So the TRAPPIST-1 investigation which is done as part of NASA science which is just not very much money in the big scheme of things is making these discoveries that have the potential to change the course of human history. I’m not kidding. If we discovered life on another world, even one that remotely distant – it’s 40 lightyears away – it would change everything. We saw methane in that atmosphere in the coming year using the Spitzer space telescope and the European southern observatory in Chile.
They said they’re going to do their best to assay or figure out what’s going on with the atmospheres in the coming year. So the Spitzer space telescope, for example, has this coolant to keep it crazy cold, just a few Kelvins above absolute zero. But it’s run out of coolant. But still you’re in deep space so it’s pretty cold anyway. And so they call it the warm mission but it’s not really that warm. And they’re going to try to refocus or properly focus and aim it to assess what’s in the atmospheres. Then keep in mind the James Webb space telescope is coming on we strongly believe still on schedule 2018 which isn’t that far off. And this is such an intriguing solar system that you just can’t help but want to point telescopes at it.
It would be extraordinary. It would just be extraordinary. What if we saw industrial gases in one of those atmospheres? It would be amazing if they have their own industry out there. Then you’d point a radio telescope there and listen and see if there’s anybody broadcasting game shows or something on TRAPPIST-3 or whatever the heck it is. So it’s really a cool thing and it is a fantastic use of our intellect and treasure which may lead to a discovery that is really – it’s hard to even imagine the profundity, how significant it would be.