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Tickets to visit Trappist 1 on sale now

Starting April 16, visits to the Trappist 1, the system with the earth-like planets named after a beer, are open to earthlings. Tickets cost less than $100.

When in February 2017 NASA announced that astronomers had discovered a planetary system composed of seven planets, of which five are similar to Earth in size, with three of them orbiting within what is considered the habitable zone, the news were received with enthusiasm.

Located at some 39.5 light years from the Sun, in the constellation Aquarius, the Trappist 1 dwarf star has been on the radar of scientists for a while. Back in 2015 astronomers found the first planet and discoveries continued since then. The team named the planetary system as Trappist 1, because it was detected using transit photometry with the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (hence the name…TRAPPIST) but the astronomers, a team led by Michaël Gillon (fr) at the University of Liège in Belgium, likes to point to another source for the name: a popular beer brand, not only in Belgium, made by the Trappist monks… They even named the planets after some of the beers from the brand!

This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The official name for the system, though, is less romantic: 2MASS J23062928–0502285. That’s in 2017, here on Earth. If you also “live” within the universe of Elite: Dangerous, a computer and console game that claims to reproduce the whole universe and its stars, in the year 3303, the Trappist1 system has another name. Or, should I say, had another name: Core Sys Sector XU-P A5–0. Now it was changed to reflect reality.

The Trappist 1 planetary system as it appears in Elite: Dangerous during the beta.

In fact, the system under the name Core Sys Sector XU-P A5–0 was very similar to the recently announced Trappist 1. The fact that a videogame had created a planetary system very similar and at about the same distance from Earth led some to suggest that Elite: Dangerous had predicted the existence of the celestial bodies. The truth is that although it is impossible for a videogame to point us to discoveries in real life, it is very possible to recreate those real life discoveries within a computer game. That’s what the team behind Elite: Dangerous made, tweaking the data they already had in the game, to reproduce, as much as possible now, the Trappist-1 system.

Still, the universe created by Frontier for Elite: Dangerous is based on scientific data, which is fed the Stellar Forge system used. David Braben, Frontier’s CEO and the co-creator of the original Elite: Dangerous (with Ian Bell) back in 1984, wrote on Elite’s forum a note that explains the whole process, and which I transcribe here. Says he:

“The recent announcement of the discovery of the Trappist 1 system is exciting. The star, an M8 dwarf red star is right at the bottom end of the M class stars, so faint it is only just visible in the most powerful telescopes, and doesn’t feature in most star catalogues for this reason. Luckily, though, the system is almost exactly ‘edge on’ from our viewpoint — which means it is possible to ‘see’ the planets as they occlude the tiny star, and an incredible seven terrestrial planets have been spotted around the star by this technique, three of them in the ‘habitable zone’.

Landing the DiamondBack Explorer on one of the planets from Trappist 1

Even with Hubble, the fainter M class red stars are only just visible at 40 light years, which is why Trappist 1 is not in most of the star catalogues. Beyond this distance we can see ever fewer M class stars — particularly the fainter ones like this M8 — and it is where our procedural generation begins to kick in — supplementing the brighter, more visible stars.

The way Stellar Forge works is to use ‘available mass’ from which to generate systems — and because of this unaccounted mass, Stellar Forge has created a system with a Brown Dwarf in very nearly the same place — 39 light years away — this is only a little smaller than an M8 — and it even has seven terrestrial worlds around it — Core Sys Sector XU-P A5–0.

Interestingly the system that came out of Stellar Forge has a couple of moons, and a couple of co-orbiting binary pairs — these things would not (yet) be detected in the occlusion technique, as this is simply detecting the darkening of the stellar disc, but who knows, this might be possible.

Because of this we have tweaked Stellar Forge with the data from the recent discoveries so that the planets are now the same — and we have renamed it Trappist 1 — but the great thing is it is only a small tweak! We may still add a few moons back in, and this should go live in beta 2, and will of course be in 2.3 when it goes live to everyone.”

Intelligent life has left signs of its presence in at least one of the Trappist 1 planets

So, there you’ve it. Trappist-1 is a viable destination if you’re exploring the universe as Elite: Dangerous reproduces it. The Stellar Forge, the gigantic procedural system used to replicate the Universe, is responsible for the real immersion felt in the Universe that Elite offers to players. The system is constantly updated with information from scientific sources — as far as that is possible within a computer game — meaning that Elite: Dangerous may be a game, but is also, probably, one of the best tools to travel across the Universe and explore celestial bodies that we may never be able to reach any other way. Follow the link to read more about how Stellar Forge works. You’ll be amazed!

One of the earth-like planets in Trappist 1… Elite: Dangerous

Finding signals of real life in Elite: Dangerous means looking for probes as the Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977 by NASA, which have been spotted by players that plotted their course in order to find where they are in the time frame of the game, 3300. Exploration of the Universe has been gathering players for multiple expeditions, big and small, and we’re still in the infancy of Elite: Dangerous, as only planets without atmosphere may be visited for the moment. More is promised, though.

For now, the new main element of interest is the Trappist1 system, which is, by all means, quite close to Earth, especially if you’re a seasoned pilot in Elite: Dangerous. The planetary system is already present in the beta version of Elite: Dangerous now being tested by many players, but the official opening of the mass travel to that destination happens on the 16th of April 2017, when the new update is launched. Then, the space around Trappist1 will be crowded with tourists taking pictures using the new camera system also developed by Frontier for this new season.

Leaving the Earth-like planet in Trappist 1 behind

I could not resist exploring the Trappist 1 and even land on some of the planets orbiting the star. The images published here are from that trip, one that also revealed signs of intelligent presence in the Trappist 1 planetary system from Elite: Dangerous. One of the images published here shows the moment I flew over a non-identified structure.

For less than $100 you can buy a ticket to be on the front row when the race begins, with the launch of this April’s update. Buy Elite: Dangerous. You may well become addicted to space exploration. But there are other ways to “travel” to Trappist-1. Use the links in this text to discover more information about the system.

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Jose Antunes

Jose Antunes

I am a writer and photographer based on the West coast of continental Europe, a place to see the Sun die on the Sea, every day.