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If one Trappist-1 planet has life, it's likely not the only one

Scientists model the planets around Trappist-1 and decide that if there's life on one of these planets, there's probably life on more than one of them.

This artist's conception imagines the surface of Trappist-1f.

If there's life in the Trappist-1 system, it's likely a multi-planet party -- in stark contrast to our own solar system. 

A new study did the math on how life could spread around the system of seven Earth-sized planets in close orbit around the ultracool dwarf star Trappist-1, about 40 light years from Earth. The orbits of all seven planets could fit within the distance from our sun to Mercury, a bit like a highly compressed version of our solar system.

The study focuses on panspermia, or the idea that life can spread from one planet to another by hitching a ride on comets or asteroids. 

Scientists Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics found that because the Trappist-1 planets are so much closer to one another, "panspermia is potentially orders of magnitude more likely to occur in the Trappist-1 system compared with the Earth-to-Mars case."    

The paper, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, speculates that because the chances of successful panspermia are higher, the odds of more species "migrating" from planet to planet are also better. The researchers argue that this, in turn, could foster more biodiversity, which is already known to lead to more stable ecosystems on Earth.

It's all a way of using math to paint a very rosy picture for the odds that the Trappist-1 system is populated by multi-planetary species, whether it's the rugged bounty hunters of our sci-fi dreams or just some hardy tardigrades -- aka water bears -- riding meteors from world to world. 

Of course, the idea of life spreading among these close-knit planets depends on life existing there in the first place, and right now we have no idea what's on the minimum of three Trappist-1 planets thought to be in the habitable zone where liquid water might be present.

Fortunately, a list of early targets for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was released Thursday, and Trappist-1b, d, e, f and g are all on it.

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