ETA: Sorry about the bigfoot (proof, once again, that the front-pagers really don’t collude). But I’ve got to run, so I’m just going to leave this here on the theory that this community can handle more than one topic at a time.
You may have caught this news, but today Nature published a report on the discovery of three earth-scale planets in orbit around just about the least impressive star it’s possible to be.
What’s most intriguing is that the dimness of that parent star — now known as TRAPPIST-1, after the instrument at the heart of this discovery — makes it just possible (if you squint just right) to glimpse a possible opening for life on its planets.
It’s tricky, because the two better-characterized planets are terribly close to their sun, with orbits of 1.5 and 2.4 days. But TRAPPIST-1 is what’s called an “ultracool dwarf” — and even at that distances, the two planets would have equilibrium temperatures that are pretty damn hot. But — if everything broke just right, there would be some locations that could be cool enough to support liquid water on the surface.
That’s one of the big pre-conditions exobiology researchers/dreamers imagine would be valuable/necessary for the emergence of life beyond earth. Given how many ways we can imagine (and all the ways we can’t) that those circumstances might not pan out, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a signal from our new friends on a distant world.
But the real juice behind this finding comes from the fact that these planets are decent candidates for transmission spectroscopic analysis of their atmospheres (if they have them) during their transits across the face of their star. All it will take is the next generation of large, infrared-capable telescopes: the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, and instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, both now starting construction in Chile, and the Thirty-Meter-Telescope, now stalled in Hawaii.
I write more about this over at The Atlantic. It’s a fun tale — a small team pursuing a hunch that has led to a significant (or at least enticing and delicious) advance in our grasp of the possible out there.
So — if you’re tired of terrestrial politics, have some fun contemplating possible home worlds for the Lectroid going by the name of Cruz.
Image: Edvard Munch, Starry Night, 1922-24
Any planet without Trump or Cruz has got to be more inhabitable than this one.
I know it’s more of a shorthand, but science articles make it seem like the “habitable zone” is all it takes for liquid water and thus life. But, as we’re finding with the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, there’s a lot more liquid water below the surface. Europa has more water than Earth.
Also, Venus and Mars are just on the edges of our habitable zone and there’s no liquid on the surface there. There’s a lot more involved then just distance from the star.
Congrats. I linked to your piece this morning when it was the cover story.
I take some objection to what other sites are referring to ‘habitable planets’. I think the public thinks of habitable as human habitable, and these planets appear to be likely no better at supporting humans then the moon. In fact, it seems that very few earth species could habitate these planets – mostly those that can exist independent of any photosynthesis.
A planet that close to its parent star is certain to be tidally locked – with the same side of the planet facing the star, like the Earth’s Moon – and subject to flares. I know why people are angling to look for habitable planets around faint stars – they’re easier to see! But nature may not co-operate and make them actually habitable.
@srv: The smallest planet should be Achel, the biggest probably Chimay.
any time you bigfoot a post about Sanders, it doesn’t count against you. Bigfoot away!
Even if there were intelligent life-forms on any of these spinning rocks, they would no doubt be as stupid & inane as what passes for intelligent life on this rock. If not more so, hard as that may be to imagine.
Villago Delenda Est
I can’t think of any Star Trek species that is disgusting enough to claim Rafael as its agent on Earth.
I’m an Astronomy subscriber (love that magazine), and they have a great article on the proposed space telescope after the JWST, what’s now being called the HDST (name will change). The early proposal is it will fly in tandem with a shield and that shield will be used to blot out the star so the orbiting exoplanets can be imaged directly. That’s when we will be able to really know if a planet is possibly habitable, since we’ll be able to analyze its atmosphere in detail.
@M. Bouffant: Meeting intelligent life would probably work out very badly for us. If they can take in enough extra calories per day to run a big brain, they’re almost certainly top predators on their planet, like humans are here. Imagine if we met a species as “civilized” as we are.
@redshirt: Yes, “habitable zone” is really shorthand for “necessary but not sufficient conditions for life that we might be able to detect from here.” (This categorization also leaves out the subsurface oceans on outer moons, since we couldn’t tell they were there even at interplanetary distances, much less interstellar.)
But yeah, it’s more complicated than just “other Earths,” and it would be nice if general news articles reflected that better
An interesting point: very low-mass stars decrease in luminosity quite a lot over their first 100 million years or so. The point is that a planet in the “habitable” zone today could mean that it was inside the habitable zone for so long that the water would have been evaporated from the surface and dissociated, resulting in the loss of the water (moist greenhouse). So habitability is an interesting and maybe questionable concept for these very low mass central “stars”.
@srv: I want Gallifrey, Barrayar, and Arrakis.
how is “ultracool dwarf” not completely fuckin’ awesome?
Which Tom’s Atlantic article does, of course.
Can we call it Tyrion?
That’s the least of our problems. Every religious fundamentalist and even a bunch to their left would completely lose their shit that humans weren’t God’s given species. Even if that species couldn’t reach us, we’d be lucky to not destroy ourselves as every major religion plays out their armageddon scenario.
Oh, and the other consideration is that any such advanced species would likely have hit their technological singularity, which either rendered their extinction or resulted in them co-existing with an AI superintelligence. Assuming the latter, that bodes reasonably well for us.
As long as we don’t define co-existing in the “pigs and cattle” sense.
…It's a cookbook!
@Villago Delenda Est: Well, DS9 has the founders, which are gelatinous shape-shifters that assume human form only to manipulate people into doing the founders’ bidding. The founders, however, are lacking in smugness.
She’s not well-regarded as a science fiction author these days, but that’s part of the premise of Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree (though the human who is captured and prepared for slaughter ends up on a different humanoid planet).
@Mike J: Elephants consume 70,000 calories per day but aren’t a top predator despite their large brains (about three times larger than a human brain).
Science makes me so happy.
I’ve become convinced that we’re orbiting the least important start, because humans have been given a timeout until we act like sensible grown sentients.
@Technocrat: Well, if the organic species is subservient, then we’ve effectively made contact with a non-organic species, which probably only serves to speed things up somewhat.
Consider the starshot plan to send ultrasmall craft to alpha centuri. If the singularity turns out to be a thing, we could MUCH more easily send artificial life forms to other stars, that weigh grams, rather than send fragile hungry meatsacks. The most likely life form we would come into direct contact with would be an artificial life form for this reason.
@Villago Delenda Est: Sure there is — the Gorn. The Gorn was even properly reptilian. And then there were those flying brain cells that killed Cpt. Kirk’s brother Sam and his family. I think those species are good possibilities for being of disgusting character to claim Cruz.
@ruemara: Our star is on the small, boring side. A yellow dwarf and unlike with most stars, no other star friends.
Paul in KY
@redshirt: I think that particular ‘habitable zone’ that includes Venus/Mars is bogus. At least for multicellular life like we have on Earth.
Paul in KY
@Marc: We (IMO) should only look at stars that are as close to our sun as can be. Then look for planets in orbits that are close to what ours is like.
They won’t do that, because a lot of academic hooha can still be gotten by discovering planets that will definitely not have any kind of earthlike life.
Unless they were “lucky” enough to be smacked at just the right angle by a co-orbiting protoplanet early in their formative period, both of those planets are going to have tidally locked rotational periods, either in a 1:1 orbit to rotation period like the moon or a 3:2 period like Mercury. Even assuming they have enough of a magnetic field to hold on to an atmosphere and volatiles that close to even a junior varsity star like this one, that’s going to make the possibility of liquids a bit complicated. Especially if they’re in 1:1 resonances.