Dreams of Mars

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Sam Jenkins

In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX, with the view of revolutionising space technology and the ultimate goal of making it possible for mankind to live on planets other than Earth. This came just a year after Musk detailed Mars Oasis, his plan designed to build public excitement at the idea of eventually walking on Mars, as he was disappointed with NASA’s lack of plans for sending any manned mission there. The idea was that a lander would be sent to the surface of the red planet, carrying a small greenhouse. On landing, seeds in dehydrated nutrient gels would be activated. The life and death of the plants they grew would give an insight into the challenges of sustaining life on Mars. However, Musk soon realised that the current level of technology was the main obstacle in seeing his dream succeed.

As you’d probably expect, getting to Mars is difficult. NASA has so far had six robotic landers successfully touch down on the surface, and although this is impressive, robotic missions are far easier than manned missions. This is because the manned missions not only have to carry the crew and supplies but also, crucially, fuel for the trip back home. For this reason, future manned missions will likely dock with a spacecraft in orbit around the planet, where fuel and supplies can be kept, rather than heading straight for the surface. While the journey to Mars would generally take about 300 days, much of the fuel on-board will get used at the very beginning and end of the trip. Firstly, the ship must be accelerated to roughly 25,000 miles per hour, to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth. Upon arrival at Mars, the ship must then decelerate, so it can be captured into circular orbit around the planet.

Traditionally firing booster rockets do this backwards, but to save on the amount of fuel required, scientists are employing new techniques. The first, known as aerobraking, has already been employed successfully in missions. This involves getting the ship into an orbit via reverse firing of rockets, and then using the drag caused by passing through the upper atmosphere of the planet to slow the ship, and achieve the desired circular orbit. The second, which has never been tried before, is known as aerocapture. Instead of using rockets to slow the ship down it goes straight into the atmosphere, at a slightly lower altitude than for aerobraking, and the drag from the atmosphere causes the ship to be captured straight into a circular orbit. This means a lot less fuel must be carried on the journey. Unfortunately, using this method of braking causes the kinetic energy of the rocket to be transformed into heat, requiring more thermal protection for the ship. Overall though, this weighs less than the fuel that would otherwise be needed, and any weight saving is an advantage when it comes to space travel. Sadly, funding cuts and tight budgets are causing NASAs plans to be slowed dramatically, and as such collaboration with other agencies such as SpaceX will be paramount to man’s ability to reach the red planet.

15 years since its founding, SpaceX has undoubtedly made large leaps in terms of their technology, frequently making headlines for vertical landings of rockets. For travel to Mars, SpaceX plans to employ their recently revised BFR rocket design, capable of carrying a payload along with an eight-story tall living space. Musk hopes that these will begin construction next year, with the potential for two carrying just cargo to launch in 2022. They would then aim to follow this two years later, with two carrying cargo and two carrying crew. Once there, the missions would aim to find water and establish a propellant plant, for running around trips between the Earth and Mars.

While some see these dates as ambitious, Musk describes them as “aspirational”. Regardless of whether these dates slip or not, manned missions to Mars are swiftly becoming a real possibility, and that is something we should all be very excited about.

Black Holes and Gravitational Waves

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Alexander Marks

On the 14th August 2017, the fourth set of gravitational waves were detected. Although the first waves were recorded in early 2016 by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observation), this time three different observatories detected the gravitational waves. A pair of black holes caused these waves by violently merging together.

Three Scientists at LIGO, Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Dr Barry Barish have just been awarded the Noble Prize in Physics, for the first detection of gravitational waves and it was these three scientists who designed and ran the two LIGO observatories, situated in Washington and in Louisiana. In the most recent detections a new observatory in Italy called Virgo also measured the same waves.

Why are three detection’s better than two? Three detection’s allow scientists to better pin point the origins of the signals, 20 times more precisely than just two. This is key for follow up observations. It also provides more information about the object that made them, such as the angle they are tilted at compared to Earth.

Gravitational waves where first predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity back in 1916. This theory was ground breaking and combines space and time to form the space-time continuum. His theory states that any object with mass warps the space-time continuum, the more massive the object the bigger the warp. It is these warps in space-time that cause gravity.

The famous equation of general relativity is incredibly hard to solve, and requires super computers to find solutions. One of the solutions predicts gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are caused by all objects as they move through the space-time continuum.  Every object makes gravitational waves, meaning that even a tiny snail moving in the grass produces them. They ripple through space-time much like ripples caused by throwing stone in a still pond.  Gravitational waves were the last part of Einstein’s theory to be proven.

The equation predicts that gravitational waves would travel at the speed of light and carry information of the objects causing them. But most of the gravitational waves are too weak to be measured. It requires a massive object to create the large enough ripples in space time to be measured.

Enter black holes and neutron stars. Black holes are the most massive objects in the known universe. Their mass is so large that light cannot escape their gravity. When two black holes orbit very quickly around each other and eventually merge, they create immense distortions in the space-time that can be measured on Earth.

By measuring the gravitational waves and using Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientist can learn a lot about the darkest parts of our universe. Scientists can predict the mass, rotation and how powerful the event was.

Neutron stars are the remains of stars that have collapsed in on themselves, and are also very massive and could theoretically be detected as well. Yet, there has been no detection of gravitational waves caused by them but, there is promise that these will soon be detected as well.

Even the largest ripples in space time are very difficult to measure. LIGO and Virgo are carefully designed to detect these ripples. Each of the observatories is shaped like an L. Each arm of the L is a long tunnel that are vacuum sealed. At the end of each tunnel there is a mirror, and a split mirror where the two meet. (A split mirror can split laser light in two, and send it in different directions).

Lasers are sent down the tunnels at the same time, without the presence of gravitational waves both lasers would return at the same time. When gravitational waves are present the space-time is warped in such a way that one mirror gets closer and the other gets further away. This results in the laser beams returning at different times, allowing scientists to measure the amount the mirrors were warped. This measurement is very small, about 1000 times smaller than a proton.

This means the bigger the gravitational waves the larger the time gap between the lasers returning. As the time gaps are so small, only very massive object can produce waves big enough to be detected.

 

The black holes that created the most recently detected gravitational waves had masses of 25 and 31 times the mass of our sun. They were orbiting each other 1.8 billion light years away and merged into a black hole of 53 times the mass of our sun. This is a supermassive black hole, and is bigger than ever expect to be found.

 

This is the third black hole to be bigger than expected. Black holes of this size appear be more common than originally thought and the rate at which they occur will soon be figured out.

 

The observatories are currently being upgraded and will become even more sensitive. Scientist hope that when they are turned back on in Autumn 2018 they will detect up to ten of these events each year. There is also hope of detecting gravitational waves from neutron stars as well.

 

With observatories planned in Japan and India, it can be expected to find new phenomena occurring in the universe that may have been thought impossible.

Aliens! Hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

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Sophia Akiva

“10 unbelievable real alien encounters!” is not an uncommonly used click-bait topic, attracting the curious and the gullible to questionable advertising sites. Our fascination with the possibility of mysterious extra-terrestrial beings has made us vulnerable to con artists, made us question our governments and worst of all, has even lead Ancient Aliens to take over a formally reputable TV channel. But is there any truth to these stories or are broadcasting stations merely exploiting footage (of conveniently poor quality) in the name of profit?

To begin with, let me honour one the greatest alien conspiracy theories to date, one that kept the world on the edge of its seat long after the initial event. Even now, the Roswell incident continues to serve as inspiration to the media, referenced heavily by believers and critics alike. On many occasions it had been named the most iconic instance of extra-terrestrial encounters yet equally frequently called the most thoroughly debunked hoax. The supposed weather balloon crash occurred in 1947 and was addressed by the Roswell Army Air Field personnel during a press conference, leaving no room for doubts or excitement so the story quickly and quietly faded away. It remained dormant for three decades, when it was awoken by the popularised hobby of spreading conspiracy theories. The believers so adamantly pursued circumstantial evidence and foggy memories from thirty years before that stories began to evolve and grow, fuelling the public’s interest with their concocted details and flexible accounts. Several books were published on the topic of Roswell, some exploring these fabricated tales through an imitation of the scientific method and some who concluded that the evidence presented was simply insufficient and often gathered from unreliable sources. The pressure on the Air Force to declassify the information from 1947 continued to mount until in 1994 they revealed the truth; that a weather balloon was a high-altitude military surveillance balloon used to monitor for evidence of nuclear testing as part of Project Mogul[1].

There have been multiple alien autopsy videos released to the public with evidently varying production budgets despite the increasing availability of special effects software. These videos, that have once entranced nations, have now taken the place of viral jokes, shared between school children and bored office workers. So, what has made us lose our faith? Have we become desensitised to the excitement of possibility or have we at last learned to question what we see before us? It is true that alien autopsies have never been supported by physical evidence and in many instances the creators themselves have stepped forward with confessions of their deceit. Perhaps this crucial data is being withheld by global intelligence agents, hidden away in coded X-files that take such extensive funding to maintain as to leave the less valuable military and economic information vulnerable to hackers and leaks.

Another famous, but very short lived, alien hoax was the accidental country-wide panic caused by the broadcast of The War of The Worlds on Halloween of 1938. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre team created a sensational contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel that was done a little too well. Initially, the team had little hope of success with this project and had it not been for some major last-minute rewriting, the show would have been nothing more than a pleasant hour for some few dedicated fans. However, due to problems with scheduling, the show was unintentionally timed more as a genuine news broadcast. This, combined with the brilliant efforts of the actors and sound technicians quickly caused widespread fear among the listeners who tuned in too late to hear the introduction explaining the adaptation of the 19th century novel. It is generally believed that the chaos caused by the realistic reports of Martians rapidly invading the Earth was unintended but as with many alien hoaxes, it sure worked in favour of the creators’ careers.

To say that all current evidence for visitations from extra-terrestrial beings is comprised of hoaxes and conspiracy theories does mean that there is no hope of intelligent civilisations sharing this universe with us. We have reached out with the Voyager golden record that contains images and sounds from Earth as well as diagrams and equations expressing our current understanding of mathematics and laws of physics. Unfortunately, it will be far in the distant future that an alien race may receive this little guide to life on Earth. For decades now, we have been listening out for a message from beyond. One promising sign came in 1977, when a researcher at Ohio State observatory was so amazed by a strong radio transmission that he wrote “Wow!” in the margin, coining the instance as the Wow! Signal. The possibility of this being evidence of alien communication has lingered on the minds of astronomers for decades, but in all this time we have not heard from them again. The frequency of this transmission corresponds to hydrogen, so although it was highly unusual, it can possibly be explained by continued development of our astronomical understanding. Be it intelligent aliens or physics that we have not yet discovered, the truth is, and will always be, out there.

[1] http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/physics10/Roswell/USMogulReport.html

One ticket for the Enterprise please! Has China successfully created an sustainable EM Drive?

 

320x240Shannon Greaves

Space is awesome. So awesome that it has had the global powers stuck in a space race even before America took that one giant leap for mankind. Everyone is eager to explore new planets, solar systems and travel faster than light (FTL) with their very own warp drive Enterprise. Well to all us astronauts at heart, that day may be coming sooner than later, now that China has released a video claiming not only to have a working EM drive, but also are claiming to have one already in space on their space laboratory ‘Tiangong-2’! Prior to this news of success from China, China was reported to have only been studying the EM drive, with no reports of successful functionality. Furthermore, both the UK and NASA have also been working on creating an EM drive, with a mixture of breakthroughs and problems. But before we get into the thick of things, let us have a quick review on some important information about the EM Drive.

The Electromagnetic drive (EM Drive), scientifically known as a radio frequency resonant cavity thruster, makes use of microwaves and particles that are bounced around inside an asymmetrical-shaped cavity, which produces thrust with an increasing momentum. Much like to if you were in a box, pushed on the side, and started to move with acceleration. What this means simply is that an EM drive creates thrust without the need for a propellant. Sadly, what an EM Drive isn’t is a warp drive as seen in Star Trek. Unlike how the EM Drive creates thrust, a warp drive appears to enable FTL travel through warping the fabric of space and time around a ship, allowing it to travel less distance.

Still, a working EM Drive would mean a whole bunch of good things for us, including a much faster way of travelling through space (just maybe not FTL Level). A fully functional EM drive would mean there would be no need for heavy propellants such as rocket fuel on board, and would result in a trip to mars only taking between 70-72 days, compared to the average of 270 days it takes us today. What’s even more impressive, is that according to NASA, with an EM drive it would only take us 92 years to travel to our nearest solar system! In addition to faster space travel, the EM drive would result in: cheaper space travel, solar power stations with cheap solar-harvesting satellites that could beam power back to earth, and generally provide us with a greener and convenient energy source for travel.

So, what are we waiting for!? Well before you go buy your space suits and tickets to China, there is a lot of discussion on whether China’s claims and experiments with the EM Drive are true. So far, all China has given us is a press conference announcement and a government sponsored Chinese newspaper (and China doesn’t have the best record of accomplishment for trustworthy research). Within the press conference they also claimed to need to do further experiments to try to increase the amount of thrust being produced. What we need is a peer-reviewed paper, which would not only provide conclusive evidence for their results with the EM Drive, but also confirm the reliability of their claims to testing it in space. China does have some stability to their claims however, with China claiming to have produced similar results to that of the work of NASA’s EM Drive experiments. NASA’s has been working equally as hard on the EM Drive, and have produced several models of EM Drives producing Thrust. They even finally managed to publish a peer review paper, with an EM Drive producing small amounts of Thrust within a vacuum. This gives a little backup to China’s claim of an EM Drive in space.

The biggest problem the EM Drive faces is that arguably its biggest contribution to science today is also its biggest problem and why many experts contest against it. The very physics of the EM Drive not requiring a propellant violates Newton’s third Law of Motion, “for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action”. So, on the one hand, where this would mean that the EM Drive would change the basis of how we understand physics, it also means that no one can explain how it works. Without this explanation, the consensus is that we can’t possibly use and sustain the EM Drive.

So, what happens now? Well we are going to have to wait to see if China releases that peer review paper, but even without that we have made a lot of development in our goal to space travel. The combined effort of China, NASA and other national institutions have brought the EM drive closer out of the theoretical, and into the possible. There has even been some theories created to explain how the EM Drive works, “quantised inertia” being responsible for creating this thrust. If true, this would mean that the EM Drive would not completely violate the conservation of motion, but adapt it. If you’re interested in the applications of “quantised inertia” to the EM Drive, then consider the works of Dr Mike McCullock. Furthermore, for those of you wanting that FTL warp drive, then there is some hope! NASA engineers have been reporting on forums that when they fired lasers into the EM Drive’s resonance chamber. The result was that some of the beams traveled faster than the speed of light. This suggests that the EM Drive may have the capacity to produce the needed “warp bubbles” for a warp drive! Nasa has even been designing a warp drive ship if you want to check that out to! Now, I’m off to watch some Star Trek, but keep an out for the announcement of a reality tv version!

Sally Ride’s Space Legacy

220px-sally_ride2c_america27s_first_woman_astronaut_communitcates_with_ground_controllers_from_the_flight_deck_-_nara_-_541940Jonathan James

Sally Ride was an American physicist and astronaut, most famous for being the first American woman in space, in 1983, and the third woman in space behind Russian Cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Sativskaya. As well as being the youngest American to have travelled to space, at just 32, she is less well known for being the first known LGBT astronaut, a fact not revealed until after her death in 2012. Whilst having been married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 – 1987, her partner for the next 27 years would be Tam O’Shaughnessy, who she met when both were aspiring tennis players years earlier.

Ride joined NASA in 1978, having answered an advertisement in a newspaper for people to join the space programme. Prior to her first flight in 1983, she worked as a communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights and worked to develop the ‘Canadarm’ robot arm, used by space shuttles to deploy and recover deliveries. The flight in 1983 subjected her to a lot of media attention, mostly because of her gender. During one press conference, she was asked a series of extremely sexist question by the media, including whether she would cry if things went wrong, and whether the flight would damage her reproductive organs. Despite everything, Ride simply insisted she was an astronaut.

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The Challenger shuttle, moments before the horrific disaster.

On June 18, 1983, Ride because the first American woman in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger. The crew deployed two communication satellites and carried out many drug experiments in space. Ride was the first woman to use a robotic arm in space. A year later, in 1984, Ride embarked on her second mission on the Challenger (sadly to be her last, following the Challenger disaster of 1986, which took place months before she was due to go to space again for a third time.) In total, Ride spent over two weeks in space.

Following the Challenger disaster, Ride moved from space flight to the political sphere, working on the Rogers Commission to investigate the reasons behind the disaster. Later, she would go on to found NASA’s Office of Exploration, which continues to lay the groundwork for much of NASA’s future exploration. She would also work with schools to encourage students to pursue careers in the space industry, contributing to seven short stories aimed at children, and spent some time as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

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Then US President Barack Obama, awarding Sally Rides posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to this day – she has received several accolades both during her lifetime and posthumously. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama. A year later, in 2014, she was induced into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.

Are Aliens Out to Get Us?

Jonathan Cooke

For a species that is so often looking up to the stars thinking ‘are we alone?’, we tend to populate our fictional universes with less than benevolent compatriot species. Look at some of the more popular science fiction movies and stories to be released in the last century. War of the Worlds, Alien and even the recently released Life all approach the question of extraterrestrial life the same way: it’s out there, and it’s out to get us.

Since it is such a speculative field, there is virtually no consensus on how we might react upon first contact, simply because we don’t know what sort of aliens will turn up. The developing view is that, if there is other life in the universe it’s likely to be microbial in nature. If there is anything that the much-lauded tardigrades have taught us, it is that microbial life will find a way to survive. Therefore, most space-based programs are focused on the detection of this so called primitive life (Is it fair to call it primitive when they can do some pretty amazing things?).

Most missions have focussed on our closest sister, Mars, and its dry riverbeds that provide some tantalising bits of evidence that all might not be dead on the red planet. Methane is unusually high in the Martian atmosphere. As a gas that is highly reactive and therefore tends to disappear without regular top ups, this is indicative that something is replenishing it. Methane in our own atmosphere is typically produced from biotic sources; meaning that, from our experience, traces of methane might be indicative of life.

Of course, alternative theories exist for the presence of methane, including geological sources of the gas. But what if our rovers were to discover bacteria living on the surface of the red planet? What would we do with it? Well it wouldn’t be coming to our planet anytime soon –  none of the rovers currently on the planet are equipped for that sort of mission. Even then, the samples would have to be tested and tested again to ensure that they aren’t just contaminants from Earth. They’re unlikely to alive by the time they reach Earth under strict contamination procedures. So, don’t worry, no Martian plague will be giving you the sniffles.

Alien View From The Moon Earth

Image Credit: Max Pixel

Anywhere else we are currently scouting for life would face similar contamination issues. Europa for instance, one of Jupiter’s larger moons, is being targeted as our next life-seeking venture to the stars. With an ocean thought to be buried underneath its permanent ice-sheet casing, many scientists believe that ocean temperatures may just be warm enough to support the development of life, if again, simple in nature.

So that basically covers what’s known; in our solar system –  at least there won’t be any tripods bursting out the ground anytime soon to exterminate us and Tom Cruise! But what about farther afield? Well, many radio telescopes are turned to the farthest reaches of our galaxies; and news publishers love a good story of astronomers finding ‘habitable’ exoplanets. If you pay attention to the Drake equation, there should be 1,000 to 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. So why haven’t we heard from our cosmic neighbours.

There are many reasons that we might not have heard from them, and many reasons we should be thankful for that. If we’ve learnt anything from our own behaviour on Earth, the less technologically advanced society rarely survives first contact with a more advanced society. The most glaring example of this is the fate of the Native Americans in the wake of Europeans discovering the New World.

This is the cautionary tale that Stephen Hawking told in 2010 when questioned about our first meeting with E.T. On the other hand, many scientists question the validity of Hawking’s reasoning. As mentioned above, many are more worried about what the aliens bring with them accidentally rather than deliberately. As illustrated in H. G. Wells’ famous novel The War of the Worlds, contact with a previously unencountered pathogen can be devastating to any organism. Whether it was the Mayans and typhoid and influenza, to African swine fever in the American pork industry, foreign pathogens tend to wipe out whole communities before any resistance can develop. Just ask the abandoned Mayan cities of the Amazon.

Of course, other questions arise which are a bit harder to answer. What if the alien civilization is warlike? What if their ethics system is not comparable to ours? What if, and this has been considered, we are the ‘life, but not as we know it’ variety in the universe? Many astrobiologists have postulated that silicon based lifeforms may exist (we are carbon based), so what if we’re just too alien for them to visit?

An even sadder alternative is that we are truly alone, that alien life is non-existent, (considered highly unlikely) or that we are one of the first intelligent civilizations to evolve in the galaxy. Perhaps intelligent life is the exception rather than the rule. The Fermi paradox points to how extremely unlikely our own path to survival was. Maybe many creatures on that road seemly get snuffed out by Natural Selection before that point.

In any case, what keeps many scientists up at night is not thoughts of alien invasions, but thoughts of alien illnesses. Perhaps what we should be preparing for, and indeed looking for, is what makes little green men feel ill.

TRAPPIST-1: Could This Newfound Star System Hold Alien Life?

Josh Bason

On February 20th 2017, NASA announced a press conference to discuss a “discovery beyond our solar system”. Two days later they revealed the TRAPPIST-1 system; a series of seven earth-size planets orbiting a star 39 light years from Earth. The announcement of this discovery and the discussion that followed has circled one tantalising question – could the TRAPPIST-1 star system harbour extraterrestrial life?

The scientists at NASA certainly seem excited about the concept. Their search for exoplanets – that is, planets orbiting stars other than our own sun – had until this point yielded only a handful of potentially habitable worlds. Among TRAPPIST-1’s seven planets, however, no less than three have shown this potential, setting a record for the most known earth-like planets orbiting one star.

These worlds were highlighted by the scientists primarily for their location in the so-called ‘habitable zone’. This describes the range of orbit sizes where, dependent on the size of the planets and the star, it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to sustain life.

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Artists impression of the surface of TRAPPIST-1f, the fifth planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt, T. Pyle

Further investigations by NASA scientists have also yielded promising results. Using precise measurements of the size and mass of the planets, the researchers were able to calculate estimates for the density of each of TRAPPIST-1’s worlds. These density measurements are key to understanding exoplanets as they give us our first insight into their composition.

Of the seven planets in the newly-discovered system, six have been described as ‘rocky’ – that is, more comparable solid planets like Earth and Mars than gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The seventh planet, which has the widest orbit and an undetermined mass, has been provisionally described as ‘snowball-like’.

Despite these hopeful indications, there is also a body of evidence which is significantly less inspiring. Firstly, while it’s tempting to imagine TRAPPIST-1 as a distant copy of our own solar system, the absence of two planets is not where the dissimilarities end. The most striking difference between this newly-discovered system and our own is the star which lies at the centre.

The star is classified as an “ultra-cool dwarf”, meaning it is both ten times smaller than our sun and less than half its temperature. While this doesn’t sound like a recipe for warm earth-like planets, the small size of the star is counteracted by the proximity of the planets which orbit it.

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NASA’s illustration of the size of TRAPPIST-1. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt, T. Pyle)

The seven worlds of the TRAPPIST-1 system all orbit between one and five million miles from their star. This means that all seven planets could fit comfortably in the space between the sun and Mercury, with its 58-million-mile orbital distance. While the size of the TRAPPIST-1 system isn’t necessarily a barrier to the formation of life, it certainly represents a significant divergence from the only solar system where we’ve ever observed it.

It’s also important to bear in mind how little is known about the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Despite the array of concept images released by NASA in the wake of the announcement we don’t, in fact, have any idea what the planets look like. The planets were found, or more accurately their existence was inferred, by observing the light emitted by the star they orbit.

This process, known as transit photometry, involved watching the star’s brightness over time and finding dips in luminescence when planets passed in front of it. From this information, NASA scientists extrapolated a range of information, such as their size, mass and orbital distance. What this technique doesn’t reveal, however, are other key factors that determine the habitability of a planet.

Because of this, we still do not know whether any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets contain atmospheres, which are vital for life, or magnetic fields, which can protect life from deadly solar wind. NASA are also not discounting the possibility that some or all the planets may be ‘tidally locked’, meaning that one side may permanently face the sun with the other half perpetually facing away. Conventional wisdom suggests life would be impossible on such a planet, as one half would be too hot for life and the other too cold. More recent evidence, however, has suggested otherwise.

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NASA’s idyllic concept art is based almost entirely on speculation. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt, T. Pyle)

Furthermore, since the announcement of the NASA’s discovery, two pieces of research have poured cold water on hopes of life in the TRAPPIST-1 system. The first, published on March 30th, detected frequent flares emitted from the system’s star. Considering the small orbital distances of the nearby planets the authors feared that these huge releases of energy may disrupt the atmospheres of the planets and that without the protection of strong magnetic fields, life in the system may be impossible.

If that wasn’t disheartening enough, research published on April 6th revealed a new climate model to assess the habitability of exoplanets. The study concluded that only one of the planets, TRAPPIST-1e, was likely to support liquid water. If this planet does not possess a substantial enough magnetic field to weather the flares from its nearby star (something scientists feel is unlikely), all hope for life in TRAPPIST-1 may be lost.

Despite this disappointing news, research into TRAPPIST-1 continues. NASA has announced plans to use its new James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, to search for key atmospheric components such as oxygen and water in the system.

The increased sensitivity of the Webb telescope will also allow the surface temperature and pressure of the planets to be measured, answering yet more questions about the habitability of the system. Until then, however, the hospitability of the TRAPPIST-1 system remains very much in question.