CLEMSON — The Feb. 22 announcement by NASA of the discovery of seven Earth-size exoplanets was “one of the most interesting announcements in a long, long time,” said Clemson University philosophy professor Kelly Smith, who consults with NASA and the European Space Agency about ethical and societal issues related to space exploration.
The exoplanets, orbiting a cool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, are about 40 light years away from Earth. Discovering them is significant in the search for life on another planet because this is the most exoplanets every found orbiting one star, three of the planets are in the “habitable zone” where water could potentially exist and the planets are very close to Earth relative to other exoplanets.
“In astronomical terms, it’s in our own backyards,” Smith said. “That means we’re going to have a field day with the science. We’re going to be able to study all kinds of things about this system.”
“What’s so exciting about this discovery is that it gives us a place to look now, where we can search for life that’s something like the life that exists on Earth,” said Sean Brittain, a Clemson professor of astronomy and physics in the College of Science.
The quest for life in space is a bright future for young people interested in astronomy, Brittain said. Over the next decade, the graduate student who will use the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018, “is probably in high school right now,” he said, and the person who will use the subsequent technology is probably in preschool.
“We need a broad talent base,” Brittain said. “We want the best and brightest working on these really hard problems. We want to include and inspire as many people in the country, and in the world, as we can.”
In addition to the innate curiosity humans have about space, where we came from, how we got here and what the future holds, the discovery will likely result in a cascade of technological developments, meaning careers in engineering and mathematics will grow, as will the need for skilled labor to create the tools necessary to conduct more research.
Finding life outside our solar system would tell us a lot about how Earth was created, and about who we are as people. Not finding life, Smith says, “will also tell us a lot about who we are, in very different ways.”
Clemson’s astronomy and physics department has more than 30 faculty members and lecturers and offers more than 40 undergraduate and 30 graduate courses; there are 75 undergraduate and 60 graduate students. The department is currently organizing events for Aug. 21, 2017, when the total solar eclipse passes directly over Clemson.
“We’re in the Golden Age of astronomy right now,” Brittain said. “If you’re a young person considering studying astrophysics, or you’re interested in astronomy and you want to study the night sky, you can do that at Clemson. You don’t have to go halfway across the country to do it, you can do it right here.”
Clinton Colmenares works in Media Relations at Clemson University.