NASA has announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a single star — three of which lies in the system’s habitable zone. That makes TRAPPIST-1, at a meager 39 light years away, one of the most interesting places to look for life. It’s already one of the biggest stories in astronomy in months and could turn out to be one of the most important discoveries ever.
The buzz surrounding TRAPPIST-1 lies one of the biggest questions we’ve ever designed to ask: are we alone in the universe? Our species has wondered this for millennia, but we’re only just now reaching a point of technological sophistication that allows us to make meaningful progress. In the past few decades alone we’ve discovered not only the vast scales of the universe, but that there are countless stars in the heavens, and many of them harbor planets.
That’s critical because, so far as we know, planets are the only place where life can evolve — the more we find, the more potential nurseries the cosmos has to cultivate life. But, we’ve found so many planets that scientists have started wondering why we haven’t heard from anyone yet. If there are hundreds of billions of stars and most stars have planets, then even if life is rare, we should expect to find some signs of distant life.
TRAPPIST-1 pushes that even further. Until NASA’s announcement, we’d never seen so many Earth-like planets around one star. That means that millions of stars could have several life-supporting planets in orbit. So… why haven’t we found anyone in the void?
Well, for one, space is freaking huge. And even with our best instruments, it takes a lot of time to carefully scan the skies. It’s also worth noting that we don’t know where to look. I mean, we know where to point the telescopes, but we don’t know which frequencies they may be trying to communicate with, or if they’ll even want to communicate at all.
Or, it could be that we’re the first intelligent species to evolve. And if that’s the case, then that could make the planets around TRAPPIST-1 even more interesting. We could, hypothetically, be the alien species that watches another culture evolve through the eons. And that could tell us a lot about how we came to be.
In any case, TRAPPIST-1 is a remarkable discovery that forces us to face some dark questions. If these kinds of planets are so common, and life so apparently rare, we may be doomed. Maybe intelligent life is unsustainable — maybe smart creatures are fated for self-destruction. Or, perhaps we’re just special. The only intelligent life in the whole cosmos. And if that’s the case, we might want to think more carefully about the choices we make as a species.