I have always loved the mysteries of space and beyond and often found myself trying to grasp how the universe came to be. One of the reasons I took astrophysics in high school was to gain a better understanding of the space around us. However, to be completely honest, learning about the physical and chemical compositions of planets and stars took away from the magic and mystique of space. I was more interested in the concepts of parallel universes and black holes and the role that time played in it all. The influx of space movies like “Gravity” and “The Martian” further piqued my scientific curiosity. Although not always scientifically accurate, the release of at least one space movie a year has increased the relatability of space to us non-scientists and non-astronauts.
Last week, NASA tweeted about some “exciting news from beyond our solar system.” In spite of the spoiler alert, I and several other internet users speculated that it was about the discovery of aliens. Therefore, when they announced that they had discovered seven Earth-sized planets surrounding a dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1, some Twitter users expressed their disappointment. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic. Although they didn’t find any extraterrestrial life, uncovering seven Earth-like planets in the near vicinity (and I use that term very loosely), meant that it is now easier for scientists at NASA to recognize any proof of life.
Although 40 light-years may seem like a substantial distance, in the vastness of space, it’s a relatively short distance. Now, while there remains the minor engineering issue of not being able to travel at the speed of light, the closeness of this solar system allows scientists to observe the planets in greater detail than has been allowed in the past. Furthermore, the rocky disposition of these planets increases the likeliness of them supporting some form of life. I find this incredibly cool because the idea used to be that Earth was an oasis in an array of uninhabitable planets. When astronomical instruments and technology weren’t as developed as they are now, it was easy to believe that our universe was limited to the nine planets (yes, I still consider Pluto to be a planet). Even then, both the concepts of being the only inhabitable planet in the universe and there being some extraterrestrial life outside were scary and fascinating in equal measure.
Given the current state of the Earth, and the fact that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two-and-a-half minutes away from midnight, it is reassuring to have a backup plan in the form of these planets. The mechanics of traveling to these planets is still grounded in figuring out a way to build a large enough spaceship that can reach the speed of light. Currently, Voyager 1 is the fastest outward-bound spacecraft, moving at 38,610 mph. Therefore, we cannot be too hopeful about getting to these planets any time soon. But there’s always the possibility that whatever life exists on those planets has discovered us, too. They could be far more technologically advanced to the human race and might drop us a visit instead. Let’s hope that the outcome is more like “Arrival” rather than “Independence Day.”