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Volcanoes may support life on a fourth TRAPPIST-1 planet

Last month, the world learned about TRAPPIST-1, a star system 39 light years away that contains seven Earth-sized exo-planets.

At first, it was thought that only three of the seven were in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is not too hot or cold but just right for liquid water to exist.

However, researchers from Cornell University have just published a paper that suggests that the habitable zone may include four of the seven exo-planets.

According to the study, volcanic hydrogen released into the atmosphere of planets initially thought of as “ice wastelands” could warm the surface enough to support life.

This not only has repercussions for TRAPPIST-1 but also affects our perception of other systems too. The astronomers believe that the effect of the volcanic hydrogen (H2) may increase other solar systems’ habitable zone by up to 60 percent.

The seven exo-planets of TRAPPIST-1 have been named b, c, d, e, f, g, and h.

It is thought that b,c and d have uninhabitable and extremely hot surfaces similar to Venus. The planets e, f and g were previously thought to be the best candidates for life, but if the Cornell University findings hold up then we can also add h to that list.

In the past, astronomers have defined the habitable zone by the possibility of carbon dioxide (C02) and water (H20) being present on a planet. However, the authors of the paper suggest that we should broaden our scope to include planets with volcanic sources that release hydrogen.

Lisa Kaltenegger, a professor of astronomy at Cornell said, “Where we thought we would only find ice wastelands, planets can be nice and warm – as long as volcanoes are in view”.

In our solar system, the habitable zone currently begins at Earth and ends just beyond the orbit of Mars. However, if the study’s findings are correct then that zone will be extended to an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

It hasn’t taken long for people to get excited about the possibilities of life in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Aside from the prospect of discovering aliens, it’s fun to imagine one day visiting as a tourist.

Looking at recent news from Space X, we may all be going to the moon or Mars sooner than we thought.

But getting to TRAPPIST-1 is a different story. According to Space.com New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft every launched. At its current speed, it would take about 817,000 years to travel the required 39 light years. And don’t forget that’s just a probe, it isn’t capable of carrying people.

So unless we discover warp speed or wormhole travel sometime in the near future, trips to the 7 Earths are off the table.

For now, we’ll just have to make do on this gorgeous life-filled planet we’ve got.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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