Doug Bonderud

Apr 4th 2018

New Planets and the Potential for Life: What Do Our Interstellar Neighbors Look Like?


NASA has already found evidence of “primitive life” on early Mars: organic molecules, mineral features characteristic of biological activity and possible fossils of bacteria-like organisms. Just last month, the space agency announced the discovery of 10 new planets in the “Goldilocks zone” of their stars — both warm enough and cool enough to potentially support life. Kepler program scientist Mario Perez puts it simply: “We are probably not alone”. But it’s one thing to know that we have interstellar analogues that haven’t dropped by to visit, and another to speculate scientifically about what type of life is out there. What could aliens look like? How would they act?

Let’s talk about the new neighbors.

Plant Potential

Back in February, the Spitzer Space Telescope helped find TRAPPIST-1 — a system of seven rocky planets, three of which are in the Goldilocks zone. This zone is extremely close to the TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf star the size of Jupiter. This means that all seven new planets orbit the star closer than Mercury’s orbit to our sun, and most of the light and heat emitted is on the infrared portion of the spectrum. All seven planets are tidally locked, meaning only one side ever faces the sun, and they orbit so quickly that one full rotation around their star takes only two Earth weeks.

So what does this mean for life? In the absence of hard data but with the significant potential for liquid water on at least three planets, Futurism asked scientists to speculate on the nature of plants that might exist across TRAPPIST-1 worlds. Experts suggest that most plant life would exist on the sun-facing side of these planets and would likely develop larger leaves to capture as much light as possible from the dimmer star, or develop a way to convert infrared radiation into energy. More details about the atmosphere and gravity will also inform plant features — planets with greater mass and thicker atmospheres would produce larger, shorter plants that could withstand powerful winds, while less massive planets with thinner atmospheres would produce tall, spindly flora.

Larger Lifeforms

Plants are one thing, but what about animals? What kind of alien creatures could we encounter on TRAPPIST-1 planets or any of the 50 potentially habitable worlds that NASA has discovered? It depends on who you ask. Some experts argue that symmetrical, bipedal life makes the most sense because it’s efficient and adaptable — but this only works if alien environments closely match that of Earth. Other scientists note that life doesn’t have to be carbon-based like ours; it could also be iron- or silicon-based to accommodate local conditions. There’s also speculation that other forms of life might be so other that human beings wouldn’t recognize them as alive. This might include life forms with the ability to control their bodies at the molecular level or that exist as forms of dark matter we’re not currently able to comprehend.

Advanced Aliens

Beyond alien monkeys, sea creatures and bugs, is there a chance that advanced interplanetary creatures exist? It’s possible. As noted by Quartz, the human search for extraterrestrial life is naturally human-focused; with no other frame of reference we assume that aliens would think and act much as we do, for example sending out radio signals and other energy pulses as a way to communicate. And we might be right — in 2015 the Kepler telescope detected rapid brightness fluctuations from star KIC 846252 that can’t be explained by natural causes. Some people have theorized that the pattern came from a “Dyson Sphere” — a massive solar array built by advanced civilizations and used to directly capture a star’s energy. What appears to us as a blinking light could be this array passing in front of the star. Speculation? Absolutely. Existing? Undeniably.

It’s unlikely that we’re alone in the universe, and the discovery of new planets capable of producing life is now driving both speculation and exploration. No matter what the neighbors look like or how they live their lives, it’s time to figure out how to say “hello.”