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STUDY: Newly Discovered Solar System Could Easily Support Alien Life

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

A new study concluded alien life could have spread throughout the recently discovered solar system, TRAPPIST-1.

Scientists used computer models to see if simple alien life forms, like bacteria, could hitch a ride on debris ejected into space by a meteor strike. They found the TRAPPIST-1 system’s small size could keep journey between planets short enough for life to survive.

“Frequent material exchange between adjacent planets in the tightly packed TRAPPIST-1 system appears likely,” Dr. Sebastiaan Krijt, a researcher at the University of Chicago and the study’s lead author, said in a press statement. “If any of those materials contained life, it’s possible they could inoculate another planet with life.”

Computer simulations suggested life could spread across TRAPPIST-1 within just 10 years of a meteor strike. Most of the mass transferred between the solar system’s seven planets would be large enough for life to endure high radiation levels and heat during atmospheric re-entry.

The star TRAPPIST is much cooler than our sun, and three of the system’s planets are likely in the “Goldilocks Zone” where liquid water is possible. Any liquid water on these worlds increase the chance they could hold alien life or be suitable for future human colonization.

Previously, researchers 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 planet called TRAPPIST-1F is potentially covered in water.

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. Other researchers are currently using the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if any planets in TRAPPIST-1 have an atmosphere.

The case against life developing in TRAPPIST-1 is that solar flares strike the three most likely habitable planets more than previously believed. A study published in April looked at data from TRAPPIST-1 for 80 days and saw 42 powerful solar flares, dampening scientists’ hope that the planets might be habitable.

These solar flares are the result of stellar magnetism and cause the star to suddenly brighten and emit vast quantities of radiation. The strongest of these solar flares was about as powerful as 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 could mean 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. However, 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.

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