The count now stands at 3505. And, by the time you read this, it will probably be a lot higher...
Two decades ago, the fact that other planets existed beyond your, correction, our solar system was not known for sure. The perpetual discovery of exoplanets orbiting distant stars other than our own stalwart Sun is about to sprout.
Scientists expect us to find many, many more in the coming years, and as technology improves, the number is going to shoot up. In fact, I need to almost immediately qualify myself: Nasa’s website has it at 3505 exoplanets. But, as of August 1, 2017, the wonderful sounding, Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, has confirmed 3639 exoplanets. The point is that this is a rapidly expanding field – as of this summer, NASA’s Kepler mission has over 5000 candidates waiting to be welcomed into the inventory of planets.
The first exoplanet was discovered in the late 1980s by radial-velocity observations of the star Gamma Cephei. By 1992, scientifically proven discoveries began with the detection of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. And while indirect methods of detection, such as radial-velocity (by which a planet’s gravitational tug on its star is measurable), and the transit method (which measures the planet’s mass by measuring how much it dims its star’s brightness), there have also been directly imaged planets, usually orbiting young stars, and whose infrared signal can be picked up.
But, what are we looking for? Why do you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning? What do you hope to see? We are looking for exoplanets because we are looking to find another “Earth”, another place to call home. We are looking for our reflection, a cosmic narcissus staring into the rippling pool of deep space.
This brings us to Trappist-1 (full designation, 2MASS J23062928-0502285), which lies in the constellation of Aquarius...
The news emanating around this solar system has led to a lot of internal excitement, for here is not only seven temperate terrestrial planets with harmoniously resonant orbits, but three of them lie in the so called habitable zone.
What this means is that, basically, these planets are more than likely similar to Earth, with water, and in the correct distance to their star so as not to be too hot, nor too cold, to support life. As we go forward, and as more data and information comes through, we will be returning more and more to this world to outline what it means exactly.
Right now, the question that is worth posing – and one that is taking on an acute relevance – is what it means exactly for humankind to discover a habitable planet much like our own, on which in fact is the trace of life itself?
This is no longer hypothetical, it is, we believe, a certainty; an inevitable outcome of this advancing and expanding field of astro science. The simple fact is – we have yet to properly talk and discuss the fallout and meaning of exoplanets.
Sure, in the U.S. there’s been one or two congressional hearings, sub-committees of outlier committees. However, there is no plan in place for not only if we discover without reasonable doubt another “Earth”, but in fact even when we are contacted by extraterrestrials. This just seems a bit short-sighted. It also, as ever, is a massive oversight in what is a valuable resource – or let’s put it this way: exoplanets might be man’s most valuable, irreducible resource discovery to date.
This century is bringing huge debates and conversations to the table between scientists, experts, and the wider civil society; never before has so much information been at hand to look at the pressing issues facing us as a species. From energy sources, disease prevention, extreme weather and geographical events and calamities, terrorism, AI, nanotechnologies, synthetic biology, GM… the list is open-ended.
We keep adding to this list, for nothing can escape what we know to be the interdependence and connectedness of living on planet Earth. Maybe the discovery of a habitable exoplanet? The conversation has only just begun.