Seven At One Blow

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science fiction is a broad church and people who love it all love different things about it. Some go for realistic science. Some for aliens with bizarre forms and cultures. Others thrill to sprawling space opera or carefully worked out social speculation. For me, it’s planets.

I love worlds. Star Wars didn’t blow my mind because of Jedi or convincing aliens. As a kid, I sat in the cinema slack-jawed with wonder at Tatooine, Dagobah, Hoth, the Forest Moon of Endor. Doctor Who had me at Metebelis III, with its wind-swept mountains filled with blue crystals. Watching re-runs of original Star Trek, my young self considered the best part of each episode to be the moment the Enterprise slid into orbit above some new world or the first glitter of the transporter beaming Kirk and crew into a new landscape.

My point being, I’m thoroughly enraptured by NASA’s announcement today that it’s discovered not one but seven Earth-sized rocky planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, a red dwarf star in Aquarius, forty light years away.

While all seven of these newly discovered worlds might have liquid water—and with it the possibility of life—the three outer worlds are all within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Because the star is so small and the system so compact, NASA says the seven worlds will blaze in each other’s night skies with the brilliance of Earth’s moon.

However improbably, it is not impossible for this system to host three or more inhabited worlds, each plainly visible to all the others, for some Galileo there to turn a primitive telescope on the sky and see the lights of an alien city.

This is real life gifting us with the sense of wonder previously only available through science fiction. One of the things that I’ve loved about NASA’s exploration of the solar system, and now the wider universe, is that each time they look somewhere new they find such wondrous and unexpected things.

In dark times, NASA shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

(Edited to add: Nuts. TRAPPIST-1 may be only 500,000,000 years old, which is a bit young to warrant dreaming of multiple civilizations on its planets. But it’s still an astounding system, tantalizingly close…)

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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