On Wednesday, Earthlings were shocked — and certainly relieved — to finally get a push notification about planetary discovery, not political corruption. News broke that an international team of scientists had spied seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Three of those planets are located in the habitable zone, where liquid water might form. NASA, the unofficial conductor of this hype train, is doing everything in its power to drum up public excitement — including building a mythology for TRAPPIST-1 that blends science fact and fiction.
Artist's rendering of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In addition to launching a website for the star system that's full of gorgeous infographics with data on the seven TRAPPIST planets, the space agency has added TRAPPIST-1 to its "Exoplanet Travel Bureau," where it imagines what vacationing in the star system might be like. But perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the TRAPPIST-1 discovery is how much scientifically-grounded fan fiction is already being written about the mysterious worlds it holds. NASA, or course, is promoting all of this on TRAPPIST-1's new website. Gizmodo has reached out to NASA to learn more about how the agency is associated with these stories.
Image: NASA-JPL/Caltech The original pieces range from poetry to short stories to a full-blown graphic novel. One of the featured pieces is a story called "The Terminator," which was first published this week in Nature. Written by science fiction novelist Laurence Suhner, it tells the story of a girl scattering her mother's ashes on TRAPPIST-1e. The story is rich with speculation on what it would be like to live on this world, which, like the other TRAPPIST planets, orbits its star so closely that it's probably "tidally locked," with a permanent dayside and nightside. Here, life has managed to thrive in a deep ocean, which helps to balance the temperature difference between the two hemispheres.
"I stand on the deck a moment, fascinated by the ocean that darkens before me as it disappears into the night," Suhner wrote. "Myriad stars riddle the waves: bioluminescence. Nuwa's ocean abounds with life forms that constantly move between the two hemispheres, following the currents and the movement of the violent winds."
Not all the pieces strike such a melancholy tone. In a featured poem, called "An Ode to 7 Orbs," author Sean Raymond gleefully describes the TRAPPIST-1 planets in comparison to our own:
The two inner planets, planets b and c. Are too hot for oceans. Water would be steam. But the next four planets: d, e, f, and g Are all at about the right place for a sea. They could have liquid water, although We don't know if they even have H2 or O. There's plenty of planets out there that are dry Just look at that big red dot up in Earth's sky. That's Mars, it's got water but only a trace And Venus, of course, is a hot hot dry place.
Over the last few years, NASA has been refining its strategy for getting the public interested in planetary updates. When New Horizons made its famous Pluto flyby in July 2015, it dominated the internet with a social media takeover: the agency helped get #PlutoFlyby and #NewHorizons trending on twitter, in addition to launching a New Horizons AMA on Reddit. The agency's ongoing "Visions of the Future" series imagines what tourist posters for various exoplanets might look like, designed in Don Draper-approved retro style. It's exciting to see science being blended with art — and now fiction — to get the public pumped about planets.
As for TRAPPIST-1, there are more stories where these came from, and over the next few years, the mythology (and our scientific knowledge about the system) will surely continue to grow. We look forward to the deluge of great (and terrible) scifi TRAPPIST-1 will undoubtedly inspire. And hopefully, more adorable Google doodles like this one.
— Google Doodles (@GoogleDoodles) February 23, 2017