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How TRAPPIST-1 and Breakthrough Starshot Inspire Space Exploration

Posted March 25, 2017

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If you’ve been following the latest news in science, you’ll know that humanity’s closer than it ever has been in reaching space exploration milestones, researching alien worlds that may be habitable for humans. Researchers recently discovered seven planets the size of Earth orbiting a neighboring star, named TRAPPIST-1, and Stephen Hawking has vowed to reach Alpha Centauri within one generation with the project Breakthrough Starshot.

These discoveries inspire the world and ignite the push for further developments in space exploration. What do they mean for the future of space exploration, and how long will it take to reach the planets of TRAPPIST-1?

The Push to Reach TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond

TRAPPIST-1 is a very cool dwarf star slightly larger than Jupiter, 39 light years away, and it burns around 6,500 times cooler than Earth’s sun. The seven planets orbit very tightly together around TRAPPIST-1, like Jupiter’s moons orbit their planet, making the sky on each planet filled with dynamic beauty.

The tight orbits helped researchers identify the seven planets and their ability to potentially support life, theoretically with liquid water flowing. The close orbits’ push and pull and could create warm tidal forces, similar to the prospect of frozen Europa’s underground ocean, as it orbits Jupiter. The planets are tidally locked, where one side of each planet experiences constant day or night. The brightest point of one day might be like a beautiful dimming sunset on Earth.

No one will know what these planets actually look like until a probe is sent, and estimates say it will take 180 Earth years to make it to TRAPPIST-1 with Breakthrough Starshot’s spacecrafts.  Zachary R. Manchester, one of the scientists working on the Starshot team, also developed “ChipSat” in 2011, a 3.5 cm by 3.5 cm spaceship on a printed circuit board. Many scientists believe that he’ll bring this knowledge and engineering to the Breakthrough Starshot Project.

As explorers set sail into the seven seas, the first Starshot spacecraft will also, with a very thin sail of its own. Attached to this sail is a chip the size of a wafer. It’s called a StarChip.  Small and thin circuit boards will likely provide power to navigation and data recording equipment.  These chips are small and durable, efficiently handling many applications. The LightSail of the interstellar sailboat is only thick as a few hundred atoms and weighs in at gram-scale mass.

Though it sounds like skipping a flat stone across the ocean, this pair could potentially reach up to 20 percent of the speed of light. Researchers have even nicknamed it their interstellar spaceboat. The Starshot spacecraft will be pushed to the stars with a laser light projected from a facility on Earth at high altitude, after its release from a mothership.

The Journey Will Take Time and Advanced Technology

So, when are we going? In terms of expansive space time, TRAPPIST-1 is within shouting distance, but current nanotechnology needs to grow more. Meanwhile, the goal is to study every detail possible of this system with the Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be operational as of 2018. Within the next few years, researchers will gather data on the habitability of the seven planets.

Meanwhile, $100 million was invested in the Breakthrough Starshot project’s development and launch, which will be a major leap in getting humanity there sooner. The technology currently in development will help decrease the time it takes to journey to TRAPPIST-1.

The discovery of TRAPPIST-1 sets a very real and achievable goal for space exploration. The push to grow the Breakthrough Starshot project is a major show of enthusiasm and intellectual force to advance science and human exploration. Researchers at the Starshot project are reaching out to the pubic, inviting them to discuss their opinions and ideas.

The public is involved in a way it never has been before, and if they continue to invest such enthusiasm and funding, perhaps such planets will be inhabited within the next century or two. These projects spark age-old urges in humankind, who first wandered the farthest corners of the Earth, to reach with a similar passion into the vast stretches of the universe.

Source:, written by Megan Ray Nichols

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