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.”

In the face of a collapsing market, Acer goes once more unto the smartwatch breach

Despite the fact that smartwatches are generally seeing their sales plummet, Acer has decided to release a new product into the collapsing market. Taking “an elegant approach to fitness”, the Leap Ware smartwatch seems to be fairly standard fare, using an array of fitness-tracking sensors in combination with an app to keep tabs on all of the various statistics the sensors provide.

“As the pace of modern lifestyles become ever more hectic, people demand technology that can keep them on track and motivated to pursue their goals,” said MH Wang, general manager of Smart Device Products in Acer’s IT Products Business.

“The new Acer Leap Ware is designed to act as a virtual coach to help people go, track, and share, sending them reminders and alerts when they need them the most.”

Acer obviously has to promote its product but the above statement seems somewhat bizarrely unaware of the fact that not only is the company offering pretty much the exact same thing every other smartwatch does, but is are doing so in a market that is dying a fairly nasty death. With big names like Pebble going under, and Fitbit’s stock having been on a steady decline, the persistence in putting out new products is a bold move.

In October 2016, the BBC wrote about a new report by market analysts IDC that showed amartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year. The Apple Watch held its place as the market leader, but shipped only a quarter of the units it had sold in the same period (July-September) of 2015. And of the five leading brands, only Garmin showed growth with that growth still being underpinned by low figures.

“It has become evident that, at present, smartwatches are not for everyone,” said Jitesh Ubrani from IDC. “Having a clear purpose and use case is paramount, hence many vendors are focusing on fitness due to its simplicity.”

Images courtesy of Acer

It was pointed out by experts that the period examined was before new versions were released, but there is still a clear lack in significant consumer appetite. The market has largely survived off the fitness aspects, with other products largely falling by the wayside as the novelty wears off. And Acer itself hasn’t exactly been the premium forerunner.

The Leap Ware watch certainly seems a perfectly fine entry into the marketplace. It’s got “diverse fitness tracking features thanks to an array of sensors with advanced algorithms” and supposedly has a battery life of three to five days so you don’t miss out on logging those all-important stats. My watch only tells the time and date. It also has a battery life of ten years.

There is a reasonable chance that initial sales for the Leap Ware may be strong, being all shiny and new as it is. There’s also a very good chance they will quickly plummet as Acer discovers what consumers are desperately trying to tell them: people don’t want smartwatches anymore.

For more information and discussion of the collapse of wearable technology, check out the latest issue of Factor magazine.

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Source: New Scientist

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Source: Curbed

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Source: Electrek

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Source: The Telegraph

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Source: CNBC