A world beyond ours

03 March 2017 | EducationResearch
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Artist's concept of what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The recent NASA discovery of the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star, dubbed TRAPPIST-1, has reignited interest worldwide in understanding the universe beyond the little blue dot that is planet Earth. The dim star is located 40 light years away, or 700,000 human years by current technology.

The scientific community in NUS was similarly excited by news of the discovery. Dr Cindy Ng, Senior Lecturer from NUS Physics shared more about why this discovery is exciting and valuable.

“This is the largest number of Earth-sized planets in one single extrasolar system ever discovered,” said Dr Ng. While other extrasolar systems discovered previously had just as many planets, these were not Earth-sized planets but larger, Jupiter-sized planets. Explaining the significance, Dr Ng added, “Earth-sized planets are interesting because they have high habitable potentials as compared to the larger planets, but Earth-sized planets are more difficult to be discovered using the transit method.” The transit method is a technique used to detect orbiting planets by tracking its passage in front of the star.

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Dr Ng’s research interest is on dark energy, the existence of which is one of the greatest unsolved problems in cosmology

The possibility of life beyond Earth is also part of the allure and excitement of the TRAPPIST-1 discovery that has captured people’s imagination. Three of the seven planets are located within what physicists term the “habitable zone”, an area around the parent star in which a planet is most likely to have water, and hence a likelihood of sustaining some form of life, be it microbial or advanced lifeform.

NUS Physics Lecturer Dr Abel Yang explained that theories related to the probability of finding intelligent life — such as the Drake equation and Fermi problem — have for a long time suggested that there could very likely be life beyond Earth, though the technology has yet to catch up to allow actual observation and discovery. “There are still a lot of challenges. There is a good chance that we will never actually confirm if there is life out there, but we will come closer and closer to the truth,” Dr Yang explained.

“The challenges we still need to surmount include continual refinements of the observational technologies and theoretical modellings, but we can overcome this with continual research in physics,” Dr Ng elaborated.

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Dr Yang, seen here with a telescope at the NUS Physics Observatory

Both Dr Ng and Dr Yang are hopeful that this recent discovery will spur interest and raise awareness of the study of physics and its related research. At NUS, astrophysics — a branch of physics that seeks to explain objects and events observed in the sky — is offered as a specialisation under the Physics major programme. As part of the specialisation, students study three astrophysics-related electives, and undertake a final year project in an astrophysics-related research area. Dr Ng and Dr Yang also jointly teach GEK1520 Understanding the Universe, a general education module that is open to all NUS students.

While the study of astrophysics may seem esoteric to some, Dr Yang explained how students will learn to apply data analysis skills, principles of physics and abstract thinking. “These are essential skills. This is actually training for the workplace, even beyond astronomy-related fields,” he said.