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NASA: TRAPPIST-1's Age Could Spell Bad News For Finding Alien Life

There's still hope though.

14/08/2017 10:15 BST

When TRAPPIST-1′s discovery was revealed by NASA earlier this year its seven potentially habitable planets seemed like the solar system we had all been waiting for.

As research into the system has progressed however NASA’s scientists have discovered a piece of information that could be a major hiccup in our quest to find alien life.

NASA via Getty Images

TRAPPIST-1 is old, and we mean really old. In fact astronomers and researchers from the University of California, San Diego and NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program believe the solar system could be between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years old.

To put that into perspective, our own humble solar system is just 4.5 billion years old.

This immense age comes with some problems, the most notable of which is that life may have already come and gone before we even popped into existence.

The second problem is that even if life has survived it will have taken an extraordinary beating. Almost all of TRAPPIST-1′s planets are in a very tight orbit around the star which means they will have absorbed huge amounts of high energy radiation over billions of years.

NASA via Getty Images

This radiation can strip away a planet’s atmosphere and boil away its oceans leaving it with nothing.

It’s not all bad news. Given that TRAPPIST-1′s planets have a generally lower density than Earth’s there is always the possibility that large reservoirs of volatile particles such as water have developed into a thick atmosphere effectively protecting the planet from the star’s powerful radiation.

Life wouldn’t be pleasant and there’s even a chance that a thick atmosphere would lead to the planet overheating.

“If there is life on these planets, I would speculate that it has to be hardy life, because it has to be able to survive some potentially dire scenarios for billions of years,” explains Adam Burgasser, an astronomer at the University of California, San Diego, and the paper’s first author.

By learning the star’s age, researchers can also determine its characteristics which led to some more potentially good news.

“Stars much more massive than the Sun consume their fuel quickly, brightening over millions of years and exploding as supernovae,” Mamajek said. “But TRAPPIST-1 is like a slow-burning candle that will shine for about 900 times longer than the current age of the universe.”