St. Mike’s professor celebrates celestial discovery

By

St. Michael's College astronomy professor John O'Meara was in Hawaii when he learned scientists at NASA had discovered planets that could potentially harbor human life. Named after the telescope that discovered them, the Trappist-1 star is oribited by seven Earth-sized worlds, NASA said. (Courtesy photo)

St. Michael’s College astronomy professor John O’Meara was in Hawaii when he learned scientists at NASA had discovered planets that could potentially harbor human life. Named after the telescope that discovered them, the Trappist-1 star is oribited by seven Earth-sized worlds, NASA said. (Courtesy photo)

Standing alone in the control room of a telescope in Hawaii, St. Michael’s professor John O’Meara knew excitement was afoot. You see, astrophysics is a small community, and while on a teleconference with contemporaries from across the science world, it’s hard to keep good news hidden for long.

It’s also not every day the head of science at NASA holds a news conference. Then again, it’s not every day astronomers find planets that could potentially harbor life.

But as they say, the stars aligned last week when NASA announced researchers found seven roughly Earth-sized worlds orbiting Trappist-1, a tiny star named after the Chile telescope that located it.

NASA said the system of planets — also called exoplanets, since they’re located outside of Earth’s solar system — is relatively close to Earth, a respectable 235 trillion miles, or 40 light-years.

After estimating the planets’ mass and density, researchers determined they likely have rocky terrain. Further observations will help determine if they’re rich in water, considered essential to life.

“The search for life somewhere else in the universe just got a little more statistically viable,” O’Meara said.

The mass of the seventh planet hasn’t yet been estimated, but scientists believe it could be an “icy, snow-ball like world,” the news release said.

Compared to the sun, the Trappist-1 star is classified as an ultra-cool dwarf. It’s so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, NASA said, closer than what is possible with planets in Earth’s solar system, which is a good sign, since all seven of the star’s planetary orbits are closer than Mercury is to the sun.

The planets’ proximity is such that if humans stood on one planet’s surface, they could potentially gaze up and see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, NASA said. These would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, so the same side of the planet is always facing it. That would indicate each side is perpetually day or night, NASA said.

“This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth,” the news release said, “such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side and extreme temperature changes.

An artist's concept shows what the Trappist-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star. (Courtesy photo)

An artist’s concept shows what the Trappist-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The out-of-this-world discovery comes nine months after researchers using the telescope Trappist discovered three planets in the solar system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including one in Europe, researchers confirmed the existence of two of these planets and found the five additional ones.

It signals a new era in astronomy, O’Meara said.

“We’ve moved from an era in which we didn’t know anything about planets orbiting around other stars, to having a handful of them, to having thousands of them,” O’Meara said.

An artist's rendition shows what a travel poster might look like for the new seven-world system around the star Trappist-1, which NASA researchers announced last month they had discovered. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

An artist’s rendition shows what a travel poster might look like for the new seven-world system around the star Trappist-1, which NASA researchers announced last month they had discovered. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

To those like O’Meara, who have dedicated their lives to this field, the news only deepens his conviction. But for the average person, who didn’t own a telescope as a child, it’s a bit harder to grasp.

O’Meara concocted a hypothetical to put the discovery in perspective. Imagine you’re a new Vermonter pondering an important question: Are there moose here?

Someone says the best place to look is in the Northeast Kingdom. So off you head. And on your first day there, you see seven moose.

“What it means is not that seven moose are unique,” O’Meara said, “but that moose are actually prevalent out there in Vermont.”

Likewise, the ease at which this discovery was made — it was the research team’s first data release — shows there are likely hundreds of billions of Earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone, O’Meara said.

The find is the field’s next step in pursuing bigger and better telescopes and techniques, all in the quest for life on other planets.

“One day you’re going to find that moose that’s all white,” O’Meara said. “The twin to earth.”

O’Meara believes in the next few decades, humans will be poised to answer one of the greatest questions they’ve ever asked: Are we alone?

O’Meara said doing so will require further investments in science and simply the “courage the to keep playing the game.

“It’s rather an exciting time to be alive,” he said.