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NASA Discovered Seven New Exoplanets. Now What?

Aerospace, Innovation

The discovery of seven new potentially habitable planets surrounding the star, Trappist 1, has caused quite the buzz in the scientific community. For those of you who do not know, the newly discovered worlds are approximately 40 light years away from Earth. They orbit a dwarf star that is approximately the size of Jupiter. The worlds are located in an orbit that can potentially support life. This makes them an ideal choice for further exploration and research. This has opened the door to many potential exciting projects that are beginning to be developed.

How Were They Discovered?

The seven potentially habitable planets were located by measuring the unique dips in Trappist 1’s luminosity as the planets transited by. By measuring these dips, scientists were also able to determine the approximate size of the planets, their orbital rates, and their overall composition. The days on the planets vary from 1.5 times that of Earth to almost 20 days for the outermost planet. Unfortunately, the spins of the planets revealed that they all likely have a permanent day and night side. This will likely limit the potential for life to only three planets. If these three planets have Earth-like atmospheres, they have the potential to support liquid water on both their day and night sides.

What Does This Mean For Future Research?

The discovery of these potentially habitable planets is very promising. They are located only 40 light years away from Earth. This makes them one of our closest cosmic neighbors. However, using our current rocket technology, it would take over 11,000 years to reach these planets. Also, there is still a lot of unknowns regarding the planets. Right now, we can only extrapolate the approximate size and composition of the planets. We can also estimate the approximate rotational rates. However, we do not have a way to reliably predict the actual atmospheric composition from such a large distance. In order to further research planets like these, we will need to develop more effective propulsion technologies. We will also need to develop surveying methods that will allow us to more accurately gauge a planet’s atmospheric composition from extreme distances.

Advancements In Telescopes & Scanning Technologies

The newly discovered planets are among some of the closest discovered to date. Unfortunately, current telescopes and scanning technologies are not able to clearly examine them. However, the James Webb Space Telescope is going to change this in 2018. This telescope will have seven times the light-gathering power of the Hubble telescope. In addition, it will be located in a special L2 Lagrange point. This orbit will allow the telescope to take images of galaxies like never before due to the lack of shadows from the Earth and Moon. With the discovery of the Trappist 1 planetary cluster, it is highly likely that this new telescope will prove vital in determining the atmospheric composition of the planets. When we have access to this data, we will be one step closer to determining if these planets can truly support life.

Propulsion Advancements

The advancements in our telescopes and scanning technologies will allow us to conduct further research from a distance. However, the eventual goal of sending probes will require much more advanced propulsion systems than what we currently have available. The rockets and propulsion systems we currently have available are not able to make the lengthy journey to neighboring star systems. This is due to a variety of problems like the weight of propellant, overall thrust power, and more. However, experimental technologies may provide the ideal solution. For example, a research team at NASA has claimed to that a unique EM drive engine actually works. This has been difficult to prove in the past since the basic principles defy the current laws of physics. However, an EM drive has the potential to make long distance travel possible in the future. An EM drive is able to theoretically propel a spacecraft without requiring any type of propellant. This reduction in mass would prove to be crucial in the development of long-distance space travel mission.

Continuing To Look To The Future

The discovery of potentially habitable planets only 40 light years away is a huge development. As we advance our telescopes and propulsion systems, we can expect to learn more about these cosmic neighbors. The deployment of advanced instruments like the James Web Space Telescope is our first step in furthering our research and understanding of our cosmic neighbors. With continued advancement, technologies like the EM drive engine may make it possible to send probes to look for actual life on the planet. Either way, the discovery of these potentially habitable planets will only help to further the growth of our space exploration programs.