Nerd Talk: Why I'm Sorta Sad About NASA's 7 Planets

It's exciting for science but we're a long way away

February 23, 2017

by Dreamstime

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This week, NASA announced that a team of scientists have been studying a nearby star system whose belt is a bunch of kick ass looking earth-like planets orbiting around in a tight formation.

TLDR: Breaking down exactly what NASA found, and can we go there?

A huge pique for curiosity, an even bigger let down for our sense of adventure.

Look, this is an exciting find for a scientist who looks to space in hopes of discovering just such a treasure. The star, significantly cooler than ours (temperature cool, not leather jacket cool) hugs these seven exoplanets closer to it than Mercury is to our sun and they might be habitable.

Buuuut...

By our best science, Earth seems to be about 4.5 billion years old - an unimaginable time compared to our thousands of years of humanity. We are a blink in history compared to the Earth's lifetime. Though foolishly self-confident, there’s no reason to believe we’ll last much longer than another blink at best.

Miraculously, in the coming years, a breakthrough is made in quantum physics allowing us a glimpse into faster than light travel. NASA and the rest of the world space agencies team their intellectual resources to test and build a craft at the cost of endless empires and even rarer, time. It’s been a generation and we send the first the human to our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. She returns only to find that relativity’s grasp has aged us all a decade in the comparatively short round trip.

The next test and we’re traveling hundreds of times faster than light all the while sending autonomous craft on more difficult missions. Maybe there’s a loss of life to a brave astronaut or worse, a war on Earth that pits us against one another. We lose our focus, an ally, a financier. Finally, half a century from our initial finding back in the late 2010’s and we’re ready to go explore TRAPPIST-1.

We arrive to find somewhere not in the sweetest spot of humanity supporting mixtures of elements - it looked so close, but we just can’t handle 175 degree temperatures or that much nitrogen in the air. There’s no detectable life and our sensors can’t survey the surface for single cell creatures. Evidently the young system is just too immature. Next time we send the landing craft and fill it full of tools to detect life. If only it didn’t take 40 years to get the message back to Earth…

To paraphrase Alan Watts, what if galactic aliens made a pass through our solar system to check it out and came across an early Earth only to see some rocks and water and goo and stuff? Would they need to return later to check and see what became of it? What if you arrived at TRAPPIST-1 to find… not much. Well, much like you may discover an apple tree in an orchard on a crisp winter morning only to return months later and realize that the now that same apple tree is apple-ing, the same could be true of any planet in the galaxy. “Oh look, that planet we stopped at last time, now it’s people-ing!”

Calm your expectations for us finally finding human-like life and keep this is mind. The chances of their blink in time and our blink in time matching up aren't high.

Still, I’m happy, ecstatic even, for science and scientists who are trying to understand the universe. Maybe our best brains are about to find that never before considered way to travel through the heavens to far away places. Having only just gotten snap shots of Pluto, you’ll have to join me in turning our excitement into creativity and using our imaginations to dream of methods that humanity will one day utilize to find life on other planets by visiting far away stars. Otherwise, this discovery remains bleak for that inner Spaceman Spiff in us all.

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