Life in another solar system?

March 20th, 2017

TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: An exciting discovery

Exoplanets are planets outside of our own solar system, and thousands have been discovered in the past several decades. With the help of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers have identified a wide variety of these exoplanets — some are icy, some rocky, and others enormous balls of gas. NASA has an Exoplanet Exploration Program, focused on finding habitable planets and life beyond our own system. As of this writing, NASA has confirmed the existence of 2,581 solar systems and 3,458 exoplanets, 352 of which are terrestrial (composed mainly of rocks or metals, like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars).

The main goal for these scientists is to find a planet about the same size as Earth orbiting a star similar to our own. They theorize this is the best opportunity to find life beyond our world. In February of this year, NASA and the European astronomers they’ve been working with announced an exciting discovery: confirmation of seven exoplanets orbiting a dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1. They believe some of these planets have the right conditions for water, a known basis for life. Although TRAPPIST-1 is about 40 light-years, or 235 trillion miles, from Earth, scientists consider that to be close in cosmic terms. The proximity and orientation of these planets allows for detailed studies by astronomers.

Scientists acknowledge this is the first time so many planets with these conditions have been found orbiting the same star. “I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there. Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to that we have on Earth, then we will know,” said Amaury H. M. J. Triaud, a member of the research team and astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England.

Habitable zones

TRAPPIST-1 is named after a telescope in the desert of Chile initially used to study this star. TRAPPIST is short for Transitioning Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope. The TRAPPIST-1 star is an “ultracool dwarf,” one twelfth the mass of our sun. With a surface temperature of 4,150 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s much cooler than our 10,000-degree sun. Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and leader of the international team observing this star gave this analogy: If our sun were a basketball, TRAPPIST-1 would be a golf ball.

It’s smaller, but so are its planets. These planets are very close to its star and circle it quickly. The closest planet orbits TRAPPIST-1 in just 1.5 days and the furthest in about 20 days. Because they’re compact, this planetary system is more like Jupiter and its moons than our own solar system. These planets are also likely “gravitationally locked” to the star, so one side of the planet would be warmer.

Astronomers believe the fourth, fifth and sixth planets in this system are in the “habitable zone” with the possibility of oceans. Gillon said that as scientists continue to study this system, they’ll look for oxygen, ozone and carbon dioxide. In particular proportions, these elements “would tell us that there is life with 99 percent confidence,” he noted.

The heliocentric challenge

One of the first science-versus-religion controversies the church had to reckon with was the introduction of heliocentric theory. Since the beginning of humankind, people had studied and looked to the “heavenly realms” not just for spiritual guidance but also to give them information about seasons and the weather. Thinkers such as Aristotle believed in two distinct regions: the heavens (perfection) and earth (corruption). A dropped stone fell back to the ground because earth was at the center of the universe. For centuries, everyone, including scientists, believed in this geocentric view of the solar system. Although a heliocentric view (that the sun was at the center and the Earth revolved around it) was proposed as early as 200 B.C., it didn’t get widely noticed until Nicholas Copernicus published this theory in 1543. Galileo Galilei raised the theory again in the 1600s, resulting in an Inquisition by the Catholic Church because this view was considered heresy.

In the article “The Galileo Controversy” on, the writer states the church was not antiscience. Rather, Galileo only ran afoul of the Catholic Church because he decided to mix theology with science. Opponents of the heliocentric view pointed to Scripture verses such as Joshua 10:13 (“The sun stood still and the moon stood motionless”). It was when Galileo tried to argue his view from a theological stance, challenging the church’s biblical literalism, that his troubles began. This article also reminds readers that during Galileo’s time, “the Jesuits had a highly respected group of astronomers and scientists in Rome,” and many notable scientists received funding from the Catholic Church. Science eventually provided plenty of evidence to prove the heliocentric theory, and the issue was laid to rest. But until then, individuals and religious institutions had to wrestle with long-held views of their world. 

What Is Life? and Other Perplexing Questions

There’s an intriguing article on titled “If We Made Contact With Aliens, How Would Religions React?” The author, Brandon Ambrosino, raises a number of interesting questions, some of which you might have already wondered yourself. He states that questions such as “What is life?” are both scientific and theological and should be explored across disciplines since scientists believe it’s a matter of when, not if, extraterrestrial life will be detected. There are even terms for this exploration defined by Ted Peters, a professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary: exotheology or astrotheology.

Ambrosino explores three principles that can guide our ponderings. First is the question of our uniqueness. The principle of nature’s uniformity means that the same processes that produce life here on Earth produce life everywhere. The second principle involves plenitude, which affirms that everything that’s possible will happen. As Carl Sagan puts it, “The origin of life on suitable planets seems built into the chemistry of the Universe.” And third, which could be the most troublesome for traditional religions, is the mediocrity principle. Nothing is special about Earth’s status or position in the universe.

Ambrosino asks, “But how could a believer reconcile this with their faith that humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creation? How could humans believe they were the apple of their Creator’s eye if their planet was just one of billions?” One answer, of course, is that if we believe in a big God, then this God is capable of loving all of his “starchildren,” just as a parent can love more than one offspring. Ambrosino also speculates on the nature of other life forms and their need for salvation. What if redemption is an Earth-only concept because only humans are affected by the sins of Adam and Eve?

Core patterns in the universe

In his writings, priest and theologian Richard Rohr claims that the mystery of the Trinity is embedded in code not just in religion, but in everything. “If there is only one creator God, and if there is one core pattern to this God, then we can expect to find that pattern everywhere else too,” Rohr writes. He also states that our scientific understanding of how everything works, from atoms to galaxies, affirms that nature operates the same way as the Trinity does, together in harmony for one eternal purpose.

“Atomic scientists looking through microscopes and astrophysicists looking through telescopes are seeing a similarity of pattern: everything is in relationship with everything else,” Rohr states. If God is always working toward wholeness by repairing the world through relationship, then our relationship to extraterrestrial life might be the biggest challenge for future generations of believers. 

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