New Research Has Scientists Less Optimistic About Colonizing These Planets


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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Solar flares strike the nearby solar system TRAPPIST-1’s three planets more than previously believed, a new study found, dampening scientists’ hope that the planets might be habitable.

The study looked at data from TRAPPIST-1 for 80 days and saw 42 powerful solar flares. These events are the result of stellar magnetism and cause the star to suddenly brighten and emit vast quantities of radiation. The study was conducted by researchers at the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, who obtained the data with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

The strongest of these solar flares was about as powerful as the order of the largest flare observed in recorded history on Earth’s Sun. Planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit much closer to their host star than Earth, so they would be much more effected by solar flares.

The prevalence of such strong solar flares means life would be unlikely to develop in TRAPPIST. Since these solar flares occur so frequently, atmospheres on the planets in the system would likely never reach a steady state. A strong enough planetary magnetosphere could shield the three worlds from the harmful effects of solar flares, but scientists say this would require unrealistically strong magnetic fields.

The study findings are a major reversal, as scientists initially believed TRAPPIST-1 could be a better place for life to develop than our own solar system.

TRAPPIST is much cooler than our sun, but three of the planets are likely in its “Goldilocks Zone,” where liquid water can form. The potential presence of liquid water on these worlds made scientists think they were potentially habitable.

Scientists estimated that the size and density of the planets as highly suitable for Earth-like life to develop. One of the potentially inhabitable planets, dubbed TRAPPIST-1E, is very similar in size to Earth and likely has very similar temperatures. Another called TRAPPIST-1F is potentially covered in water.

It would take roughly 39 years to travel to these planets at light speed. The researchers are currently using the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if these planets had atmosphere.

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) telescopes had been monitoring the multi-planet system for signs of life even before the discovery was announced. So far, no telltale signs of radio traffic have been detected, but further searches are in the works.

NASA announced in May that its Kepler Space Telescope found 1,284 new exoplanets, or planets, outside our solar system. Roughly 550 of those exoplanets could be rocky planets, like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these exoplanets orbit in their stars’ “Goldilocks Zones.”

Some exoplanets closely resemble Earth and are a few of the best places in the universe to look for alien life. European astronomers identified a planet very similar to Earth in August, around the star Proxima Centauri. Scientists don’t currently know if the planet, called “Proxima b,” has an atmosphere or possesses a magnetosphere, but there’s already a lot speculation about the possibility of life there.

If life did develop on Proxima b, it may exist in a relatively primitive microbial form, NASA scientists previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

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