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Discovery of seven Earth-like planets a ‘tremendous technical achievement’

Barry McNamara
02/24/2017
With this week’s news from NASA that seven Earth-like planets are orbiting a nearby star, Monmouth College physics professors were asked their thoughts about a potential related discovery: what if life is found on one of these planets?

“If scientists discover life elsewhere, it would be the greatest discovery ever,” said Chris Fasano. “If they discover intelligent life, that would be an even greater discovery.”

The odds are in favor of such a discovery, said Fasano’s colleague, Tim Stiles.

“There are potentially millions of worlds or planets with liquid water,” he said. “(Discovering one) would change everything, wouldn’t it? We talk with our students about that in our ‘Cosmology and Creation’ course.”

Fasano agreed, saying the search for life and the potential discovery of it has “extraordinarily deep implications.”

“It raises all sorts of non-science questions, the kind of questions we like to ask in the liberal arts,” he said.

Despite the favorable odds, Fasano sometimes finds himself wondering the same thing as 20th-century Italian physicist Enrico Fermi did in his famous paradox: an apparent contradiction between high probability estimates for other life in the universe, and the lack of evidence.

“Where is everybody?” Fermi asked.

“The universe should be teeming with life, including intelligent life, but there’s no evidence anywhere – certainly not of intelligent life,” said Fasano.

Fasano said the answers why that might be true aren’t pretty – although this week’s discovery could help.

“The answer could be ‘We’re alone,’ which is shaking and philosophically disturbing, maybe,” he said. “Or other societies have existed, but they’ve been destroyed – maybe by natural means, like a supernova, or maybe the destruction was self-inflicted. Other reasons could be that their form of life is so different that we don’t recognize it. Or it could simply be too far away.”

Both professors think the search for life is on the right track with the focus on smaller, red cool stars, including TRAPPIST-1, which has the seven Earth-like planets. Earth revolves around a sun that is a larger yellow star.

“Finding this star and these planets is a tremendous technical achievement,” said Fasano. “It’s very exciting, and there are so many more red stars than there are stars like our sun. They have a much longer life, so there is more time to develop life on their planets. That’s why the search has shifted to these kinds of stars.”

“We’re in a golden time of discovery,” said Stiles. “They’ve discovered about 1,000 planets, and things are going to get much, much better when the (James) Webb (Space) Telescope is up.”

The College has a tie to that telescope, as it hosted Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Mather – a senior project scientist for the Webb – in 2015 for the Whiteman Lecture. And one of Stiles’ friends worked on the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was instrumental in this week’s discovery.

As for Monmouth’s 20-inch Trubeck Telescope that sits atop the Center for Science and Business, Fasano and Stiles said that it could be trained on TRAPPIST-1. Viewers would be able to see it, although Stiles said it would appear as “a really dim star.”

“It would be tough to see, but it’s possible,” he said.

Fasano, who said the seven planets would not be visible from Monmouth’s scope, said system’s like TRAPPIST-1’s are the best to track, because the planets orbit their sun in short amounts of time.

“If someone was watching our solar system for the changes of light when Earth goes in front of the sun, they would only see that once every 365 days,” he said. “It’s much easier to track these systems that have orbital periods of less than 50 days.”

Fasano and Stiles agreed that any further discoveries about TRAPPIST-1 will not mean mankind is headed on a 39 light year-trip any time soon.

“There’s not even a hint of the technology we would need for a trip like that, barring some tremendous breakthrough,” said Stiles.

“We haven’t even figured out yet how to get to Mars with people,” said Fasano. “Voyager was launched in the 70s, and it’s just now reaching the edge of the Solar System.”