Episode for July 25th, 2023 Download

Imagine a star system where seven worlds orbit a faint red sun. A star system where four of these worlds could be home to oceans, skies, and perhaps even life. A star system that is closer to us than any other with so many planets. This is TRAPPIST-1, the most amazing discovery so far in the quest for life beyond Earth.

TRAPPIST-1 is a tiny star in the constellation of Aquarius, only 41 light years away from us. It is so dim that we can’t see it with the naked eye, but it shines brightly in the eyes of astronomers who have studied it with powerful telescopes. They have found that this star has seven planets, all of them rocky like Earth, and all of them packed in a tight orbit around their sun.

The four middle planets are in the sweet spot where liquid water could exist on their surfaces, if they have the right atmospheres. This is what makes them so exciting for the search for life. Could there be microbes, plants, or even animals on these alien worlds? Could there be civilizations, cultures, or art? Could there be someone looking back at us, wondering the same thing?

We are not alone in our curiosity. The new Webb Space Telescope has just made a breakthrough in exploring TRAPPIST-1. It has measured the temperature of the innermost planet, TRAPPIST-1b, for the first time. This planet is very close to its star, whizzing around it in less than two Earth days. It is slightly bigger than our planet, but made of rock like ours. Webb has found that it is very hot on its day side, 500 Kelvin or 450 degrees Fahrenheit - that’s 232 degrees Celsius. This means that it probably has no atmosphere or any life. It is more like a scorched desert than a paradise.

But this is just the beginning. Webb will soon observe the other planets in TRAPPIST-1, and reveal their secrets. We may find clues to their atmospheres, their climates, and their potential for life. We may find out if we have neighbors in this cosmic oasis, or if we are alone in the vastness of space.

TRAPPIST-1 is a star system that inspires us to dream, to explore, and to discover. It is a star system that challenges us to ask: are we alone?