Scientists are one step closer to finding out if we have cosmic neighbours within TRAPPIST-1, the newly discovered seven-planet solar system located a mere 40 light years away.
A new study on the system – whose planets are positioned as little as 380,000 miles from one another – has found that its potential life forms may actually be capable of jumping between planets.
Three of the planets in the system are in the star’s habitable zone, where liquid water and even life may exist. In research published on arXiv. Harvard University scientists Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb claim it’s possible that microbial life is transferring between these planets.
“Because these distances are so close, a lot more different kinds of species, microbial or otherwise, could migrate from one planet to another,” Lingam told New Scientist.
The theory that life can be transferred between worlds is called panspermia, and encompasses a variety of methods including a meteorite hitting a planet’s surface and sending life-harboring debris into space. Loeb and Lingam suggest that if this does occur and just one of TRAPPIST-1’s habitable planets developed life, it’s possible the other two also host life.
“If panspermia (or pseudo-panspermia) is an effective mechanism, it leads to a significant boost in the probability of abiogenesis [the spontaneous appearance of life],” write the researchers.
It’s still unclear if the system itself is habitable, however; one issue being that its star is an ultra-cool dwarf, which is believed to emit strong bursts of radiation as flares. Since the planets are so close to the star (20 to 100 times closer than Earth is to the Sun), this could destroy any chance of life on its neighboring planets.
The researchers say it will depend on the age of the star, and whether the planets have always been in their current position.
Unfortunately, we have some time to kill until we find out the truth about our potential neighbors; the James Webb Space Telescope has to study TRAPPIST-1’s atmosphere over the next few years, so you may want to hold off on making those muffin baskets.