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NASA’s recent discovery of seven exoplanets in a star system named TRAPPIST-1 resulted in a wave of excitement amongst space nerds around the world. These seemingly Earth-like exoplanets are about 40 light years away from us. To put things in perspective, the observable universe extends for about 92 billion light years and no human has ever ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light seconds. In fact, the farthest man-made object from earth Voyager-1 is about 68,779 light seconds away. Clearly, we don’t have the technology to get to TRAPPIST-1, so it makes you wonder, why are we excited about it?

For space scientists, this discovery is more like the promise of future excitement as they’ll be able to study these exoplanets closely when James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in October 2018. What adds to the excitement is the resemblance of this star system to our solar system. The data so far suggests that some of these planets are rocky and being Earth-sized, scientists believe, they are more likely to have an atmosphere and be habitable.

 

It is kind of sad to think that even if we discover a habitable atmosphere in TRAPPIST-1 or anywhere else in the universe, given the current technology it is highly unlikely we will ever be able to visit such a place. There is no doubt that humans have achieved a lot. We have managed to put people on the moon, and land robots on asteroids and mars, and even moons of other planets like Saturn.

We are certain that space technology will only improve in the future and given enough time, say thousands of years, we will solve our speed problem. We might be able to achieve our space travel goals faster if we exploit our understanding of theoretical concepts like wormholes.

Whatever the solution might be it is certain that it will take more than a human lifetime or more likely a mammalian species’ lifetime. It is likely that before we are able to advance our technology enough the entire human race will be wiped out as a result of some cataclysmic natural disaster, or the Earth being hit by a huge asteroid. Whether intergalactic travel will be possible or not basically boils down to whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

Maybe someday we will develop technology to travel faster or survive in vacuum for longer. Maybe humans are the only intelligent life in the universe or maybe not. According to Fermi’s paradox, there are billions of stars in the universe with Earth-like planets, so there must be intelligent life elsewhere. So “Where is everybody?”.

Maybe no intelligent life in the universe lived long enough to have technology advanced enough to travel across galaxies. In that case, the onus is on us to try. Maybe we have been visited but we don’t know it yet. Maybe we are just not worthy of a visit. Or maybe we are part of a bigger league and we have this seed of curiosity in all of us which pushes us to explore, to become worthy to be a part of a bigger alien world. Think about it!

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Abhishek Sharma
Abhishek Sharma
INTP, making sense of data and learning from the universe while I am at it.

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