The seven planets and the ultracool dwarf: Why life in the Trappist-1 system could be decidedly weird

NASA has announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting an ultracool red dwarf; one of the best hopes for finding life beyond Earth yet. But if Trappist-1 does host life, it will be like nothing we've ever encountered before

Yesterday NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a small, dim star 40 light years from Earth. Trappist-1 is an unprecedented discovery, and is sure to keep astronomers busy for decades to come, but also offers one of our best hopes in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life.

Located in the Aquarius constellation, the exoplanet system contains three planets in the habitable zone, of which at least two are thought to have a rocky surface. And while this doesn’t guarantee the existence of life in the system, it does make it worthy of further investigation.

“Three of these planets are in the habitable zone where liquid water can pool on the surface. In fact, with the right atmospheric conditions there could be water on any of these planets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Over the next decade scientists will be performing numerous follow-up studies, with the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope enabling scientists to detect evidence of water, methane, oxygen and other vital building blocks of life when it comes online in 2018.

“These planets are among the best of all the planets we know to follow up, to see the atmospheres, and also to look at biosignatures – if there are any,” added Zurbuchen.

“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when.”

Under different suns

Trappist-1’s star is quite different ­­from our own Sun, meaning that any life that has evolved in its presence would be quite unlike that of Earth.

Most significantly, Trappist-1 is a red dwarf star, a class of stars also known as M-dwarfs that are increasingly being targeted in the search for life.

This M-dwarf is considerably smaller and burns at a lower temperature than our solar system’s star, and is smaller and cooler than most other M-dwarfs, hence the ultracool classification.  As a result, liquid water can exist on planets orbiting very close to it; the seven planets hug their star in tight orbits, all of which are closer than our innermost planet Mercury’s orbit of the sun.

This also means that the planets orbit considerably closer to each other than we do with our own planetary neighbours. If you were standing on the surface of one of the Trappist-1 planets, your planetary neighbour on some days would hang larger than our own Moon in the sky, and might be close enough to see its mountain ranges or cloud cover.

The sun would also be a far greater presence in the sky, looming six times larger than our own.

This would also mean trips between different planets in the system could take just a couple of days, potentially allowing if not life in the system then future humans to hop across Trappist-1.

A year a week

Because the planets are so much closer to their sun, their years are very different to our own, ranging from 1.5 days for the closest planet to the star to 20 days for the farthest.

For the three planets in the habitable zone, snappily named Trappist-1e, f and g, years are 6.1 days, 9.2 days and 12.4 days long respectively.

What impact, if any, that could have on life is unclear, but it does have the potential to affect how life evolves; on Earth many forms of life have seasonal responses that are influenced by the changes and length of our year.

Forever day, eternal night

NASA also believes that the planets may be tidally locked, meaning that one side of each is always facing the sun. This would result in life on the planets either eternally basking in daylight, or permanently shrouded in darkness.

Images courtesy of NASA-JPL/Caltech

It would also make for a very different weather system on each planet, with extreme temperature changes, and strong winds over the terminator – the line between day and night.

This could mean that life would require a certain atmosphere to be present for it to survive, in order to transport heat and moderate the overall climate, which is something that astronomers will know more about once the James Webb space telescope launches in 2018.

However, the wavelength of light Trappist-1’s star is supplying is also different to our own sun. This will result in a different hue, with a duskier red-orange daylight.

This would affect the wavelengths of light that life would be exposed to, and so would have an impact on how biological systems evolved in response. On Earth, plants photosynthesise best at specific wavelengths and have evolved to reflect unwanted green light from the Sun, giving them their colour. But on the Trappist-1 planets there will be a different spectrum of light, requiring any plants to adapt differently to their environment.

As a result, plants on Trappist-1’s planets could have orange and black foliage rather than our own green.

The hunt is on

Now that the world knows about the existence of the planets, scientists are scrambling to learn more about them. However, with no ability to send anything directly, there are limitations on what we can currently learn, and the scientists are keen to stress that any life found is highly unlikely to be sentient.

“I’m just talking about slime here – it’s far easier to evolve than sentient beings.” said Victoria Meadows of the University of Washington, the principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory. “The majority of life we find out there is likely to be single cell, relatively primitive life.”

However, when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) finally comes online next year, scientists will be able to start looking for an atmosphere.

The majority of life we find out there is likely to be single cell, relatively primitive life.

“We will look at the atmosphere for gases that do not belong – gases  that might be attributed to life,” said Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT, in a Reddit AMA. “We will not know if the gases are produced by microbial life or by intelligent alien species.”

Beyond that, we will need to build more sophisticated equipment if we are to determine what the flora and fauna of Trappist-1 is really like.

“In order to see vegetation and any other surface features (e.g. oceans, continents), we’ll need future telescopes beyond JWST that will be able to directly image exoplanets,” added Giada Arney, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

“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.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”