On February 22, 2017, NASA announced the first known system of seven Earth-like planets all orbiting the same star, and three of those planets orbit in the temperature sweet spot (AKA “The Goldilocks Zone”) that, most likely, allows them to support water, air, and life.
That’s a pretty big deal.
So a bunch of experts from NASA jumped onto reddit to answer some questions about “our search for life beyond Earth.”
I dug through it and pulled out some of my favorites.
But first, here’s a list of the experts:
- Giada Arney, astrobiologist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
- Natalie Batalha, Kepler project scientist, NASA Ames Research Center
- Sean Carey, paper co-author, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC
- Julien de Wit, paper co-author, astronomer, MIT
- Michael Gillon, lead author, astronomer, University of Liège
- Doug Hudgins, astrophysics program scientist, NASA HQ
- Emmanuel Jehin, paper co-author, astronomer, Université de Liège
- Nikole Lewis, astronomer, Space Telescope Science Institute
- Farisa Morales, bilingual exoplanet scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics, MIT
- Mike Werner, Spitzer project scientist, JPL
- Hannah Wakeford, exoplanet scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
- Liz Landau, JPL media relations specialist
- Arielle Samuelson, Exoplanet communications social media specialist
- Stephanie L. Smith, JPL social media lead
Dannnng… That’s a lot of pedigree.
What do we do if/when we ever find signs of life on another planet?
We do not yet have a protocol.
Most likely we will make a tentative discovery; that will take longer to confirm.
OK, but will you tell the public? Will it be a top priority?
It’s part of our charter that NASA “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof,” so, yes, we would inform the public.
So, there’s no “Prime Directive?”
LOL, we don’t have a “prime directive,” but we do have a Planetary Protection policy. It’s sort of like the prime directive, but very real.
Basically, we don’t want to go looking for life only to find that we brought it with us from Earth.
We told you about this a while back in one of our Fact Snacks:
Do any of these exoplanets have oxygen?
It’s going to be awhile before we find an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) will launch in fall 2018, so we will have to wait to try until sometime after that.
It turns out some oxygen-rich atmospheres might exist that are not created by life, so to associate oxygen will require care.
I hope we will be able to find, identify, and announce in a few years!
How do we search for life on planets that far away?
We will look at the atmosphere for gases that do not belong–gases that might be attributed to life.
We will not know if the gases are produced by microbial life or by intelligent alien species.
So we’re searching for alien farts?…
…JWST will observe planets transiting their host stars. Transits are when the planet passes between us and its star, and from these transits, we can observe how gases in the planet’s atmosphere interact with starlight passing through the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t allow us to see the surfaces of exoplanets.
To do that, we’ll need farther future technology that may become available in the coming decades that will allow us to block out the star’s light and observe the planets directly.
However, the TRAPPIST-1 planets, being so close to their host star, would likely be tricky to directly observe in this way. These starlight suppression technologies fail once you get too close to the star, and so these types of observations would be extremely difficult.
Other planetary systems orbiting hotter stars may be detectable with these technologies, though!
And on them, we’d be able to search for things like vegetation and other interesting signs of habitability and life.
Damn. This sounds difficult.
How would we get there?
Right now there is no current technology that can get us to the new planetary system.
That’s why we will use space-based telescopes to “remotely” investigate by observing the planets from afar…
…Fledgling efforts, however, are underway to consider how to send tiny spacecraft to the nearest star which has one known planet.
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