On Two Planets Not so Far Away, Human Life Might Live

Don't pack your space bags just yet.

Here’s something from an advanced school of scientific thought, advanced as in far from certain for now and the foreseeable future. Sky watchers peering through a 60 cm telescope in Chile believe they have spotted a trio of “exoplanets” that meet some very preliminary criteria for habitability.

From Nature:

Three Earth-sized exoplanets were recently discovered close to the habitable zone of the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The nature of these planets has yet to be determined, as their masses remain unmeasured and no observational constraint is available for the planetary population surrounding ultracool dwarfs.

Do these words seem like garbled traffic directions given in intergalactic pidgin to a confused voyager from a parallel star system on a lost episode of Star Trek? The interpretive reporting of Inverse, which spoke with MIT astronomer Julien de Wit, will clear all that up. Astronomer de Wit took time out from keeping his eyes glued to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

From Inverse:

“We obtained transmission spectra of the planets’ atmospheres between 1.1 and 1.7 microns with the instrument [Wide Field Camera 3] onboard of Hubble,” de Wit tells Inverse. The data basically suggested that the planets did not possess clear helium and hydrogen atmosphere. Hydrogen-dominated atmospheres are pretty big signatures of gaseous planets like Jupiter and Saturn.
“Therefore,” says de Wit, “we can fully reject the scenario of large and puffy hydrogen-dominated atmospheres for these planets. They are ‘terrestrial’, meaning like Earth, Venus, Mercury, and Mars.”

As oversold by Inverse’s “Two Nearby Exoplanets Are Probably Habitable” headline, a designation as terrestrial gives the notion of creatures inhabiting the orb’s surface a leg and a patch of ground to stand on. Still, using the word probably in this context qualifies as click bait wrapped in overstatement.

The actual scientist in all this news, de Wit, remains a few galactic steps away from any statement of probability: “Until recently we had not detected planets around such stars,” de Wit tells Inverse, “so we have no idea what these are like… It’s pure exploration!”

And by “pure exploration,” considering these celestial objects are 40 light years distant and handily beyond on-terrain exploratory range, de Wit may be leaning toward "informed-but-unadulterated speculation."

Of course, discourse is always good, or so the theory goes. The Inverse post does raise some questions. What is an ultracool dwarf? (A not-overly-hot celestial object that is too large to be called a planet and too small to be a star.) What is an exoplanet? (A planet that orbits a star outside the solar system we call home.) How does Inverse’s recognition that “New research finds that the planets have a rocky surface” lead to its hypothetical: “Do they possess extraterrestrial life, too?” (Inexplicable.)

In answering the question in Inverse's subhead, the jump from “heavens only know” to “probably” is one small step for a copyeditor, but—in all probability—signifies no great leap ahead for mankind.