Life as a Human Born on Another Planet
Like most children, you go to bed early, in the evening, no later. As your mother tucks you in, you see the warm glow of sunset hitting your ceiling. The soft reds and pinks of twilight, playing on your bedroom walls. Then, as you’ve seen her do every night, you watch as she closes the thick black curtains, plunging you into sudden, silky darkness.
When you wake up several hours later, calm and refreshed, you throw open the blinds. As usual, it’s just as dim as it was when you went to bed. You see the twilight glow, and again its soft reds and pinks, playing on your bedroom walls. You run outside to find your mother in the front yard. “Hello, mom!” you scream as you run to meet her. But then you remember her teaching you to say “good morning” when you wake up. So you do that instead, even though you’ve never really understood her stories about mornings and evenings, and a place where the sky isn’t always twilight.
To you, this is all there ever was. The sun always hangs in the west, on the horizon, exactly where it is before you sleep and throughout the rest of the day that follows. There have always been not one, not two, but six crescent moons strewn across the sky. And the weeds in your front yard have always been jet-black. This is all you’ve ever known. This is life as a human born on another planet.
A mere 40 light-years from Earth, there is a dim red star called TRAPPIST-1 that hosts seven rocky planets. Only they’ve been pulled together so tightly that they don’t rotate anymore. So they no longer experience days or nights as we know them. The fourth planet from this star, which astronomers call TRAPPIST-1e, is suspected to have a sliver of land mass that might be habitable to humans.
You see, because the planet doesn’t rotate anymore, TRAPPIST-1e is effectively split in half. One side is a bleached, molten desert. It swelters under the heat of an endless high noon and thick storm clouds that offer shade, but never water. On the other side is a biting Arctic cold. Here, the stars reign eternally over mile-high glaciers that crush the continents beneath them.
In this world of extremes, the only place life may thrive on this planet is in the space between the two extremes. The goldilocks zone, the thin line between darkness and light. A land where the sun never sets, but never rises either. Despite how different it might seem from the world we know, TRAPPIST-1e may be humanity’s best bet for life beyond our Sun. One of the first missions of the newly-launched James Webb Space Telescope is to investigate 1e and its siblings. We know they’re as dense as our rocky Earth, but are they as wet, warm and cloudy as we believe?
If so, it’s very possible that one day our great-great-great grandchildren might call this new planet home. And although it might take some adjustments, TRAPPIST-1e might just be more similar to Earth than you might think.
On the ship to TRAPPIST-1, your mother learns for the first time that she’s pregnant. She is worried and scared, but she’s also hopeful and excited for what life on another planet might look like for her and her newborn, you. Alongside flipping through parenting books, she spends the waking hours of her journey reading about the midnight sun on Earth. How in Arctic regions, the planet’s axial tilt makes it so the Sun never sets for months on end, just as it is on TRAPPIST-1e. Only she’s surprised to learn of the toll an endless day can exact upon the human mind. How your body finds it difficult to tell you when to rise and when to rest.
She begins to feel it herself, trapped in the cramped, fluorescent quarters of the ship, and she worries for the child she never expected to have. She doesn’t know if you’ll be able to grow up without ever knowing the tranquility of night. When she finally arrives, the settlement’s doctors give her a solution: gene therapy. Your circadian rhythms control 10 to 15% of your genes, they say. By altering those genes, you might stave off insomnia, heart disease and cancer growth in the same way that polar animals do. Reindeer, for example, deactivate their circadian rhythms through the summer sun, and reactivate them in autumn. While some forms of genetic engineering are usually illegal on Earth, in this case there's a legitimate medical cause. And so you are born a true child of TRAPPIST-1e.
At first, it’s hard to tell whether the changes took place, given how erratic a baby’s sleep cycle can be. But as you age, that cycle never changes. You never have a full eight hours of sleep, preferring several shorter naps instead. While your mother takes care to give herself the illusion of night by dimming the lamps around dinnertime, you’re free to stomp around in the light for as long as you can. When she finally tells you it’s time for bed, you ask her to leave your curtains open. You don’t need them. You never have. And so you bask in TRAPPIST-1e's warm glow like a cat in a sunbeam.
On your very first camping trip, your mother takes you and some friends high into the mountains. There are few shadows up here save the ones you cast, and it’s easy going. Your mother has walked this path before, but even if you guys happen to get lost, you won’t need a compass to find your way home. The sun is your universal reference point, your guiding star, because it’s always there. The same place it was yesterday, the same place it’ll be tomorrow.
Before setting up your pitch-black tents, you all huddle around the fire, feeling cold for the first time in a long time. You’ve never been this close to the dark side of the planet before. In the distance, where the sky turns blue, you make out the faintest hint of light. A single pale dot. You ask your mother what it’s called. At school they had you memorize the names of all the TRAPPIST-1 worlds, but not that one. And she sighs.”It’s a star. Like our own red sun, but a million miles away.”
You know this, intellectually. But it’s hard to care much about something so small, so abstract. Seeing your blank face, your mother seizes the opportunity to tell a story over the campfire. This was why she brought you out here, of course. To give you a little piece of the world she once knew. So she starts. When she was your age, your grandfather took her kicking and screaming on a trip much like this one. Reluctantly she went, far from the noise and glow of the city, into the farm fields of the Midwest. And there she saw what most people on Earth will never see. A clear view of The Milky Way. The Galaxy stretched out above her, consuming her.
In that brief moment of awe, her imagination stirred with waking dreams of new worlds and new kinds of life. She knew then that she would leave Earth. That’s why she sacrificed everything she ever had to come here, to TRAPPIST-1. But you’ve stopped listening. Instead you pick up a stick and carve shapes into the ground. You are like most humans who have grown to care less and less about the stars. Right now, more than a third of humanity can no longer see the Galaxy above them at night. It got so bad that in1994, when an earthquake knocked out power across Los Angeles, dozens of anxious residents called emergency lines to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the sky. That cloud was the Milky Way. The residents of California had been so blinded by light pollution that many of them had never seen the Milky Way before in their lives.
We haven’t even traveled to an alien planet yet, and already we’re losing our connection to the stars. And with them, our most easily accessible source of awe. An emotion clinically proven to stir creativity, generosity and goodwill. This reality will be even worse when we no longer call Earth home. Because despite living on an alien world, the children of TRAPPIST-1e might grow up with a diminished capacity for wonder, a sense of languish that everything is as it ever was, and as it ever will be.
At school, you practice emergency drills. Not lockdowns, or even fire drills, but storm drills. In Pacific zones on Earth, typhoons and other tropical storms are so common that they necessitate practice like this. It’s the same in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1e. You huddle under your desk as the teacher shuts the storm guards and looks at their watch. For a few moments, everyone holds themselves still. Silent.
You don’t live anywhere near the coast, the deep, glacier-fed ocean that stretches around the world. But it doesn’t matter. On TRAPPIST-1e, the storms don’t come from the ocean. They come from the desert. As the sun boils the dayside air, atmospheric currents carry it up and into the twilight zone, funneling heat toward the cold side of the planet. This minimizes the differences in temperature between the two halves, making TRAPPIST-1e far more temperate than it would be otherwise.
This is what allows complex ecosystems to exist. Unfortunately, this is also precisely what causes these desert storms as well. As a result, gale-force winds, tornadoes and hurricanes relentlessly hound the habitable areas of TRAPPIST-1e. Essentially, the same thing that makes life possible on the planet is also life’s most constant threat. Later that semester, you’re forced to put your practice to the test. The alarm blares and everyone ducks and covers. Yet you stare out the window. The sun is clear upon the horizon, the same brilliant red. It’s a perfectly lovely eternal evening. But as your teacher heads for the shutters, you see it. The aurora. This is a TRAPPIST storm, but of a different kind entirely.
Red dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 are incredibly volatile, unleashing solar flares greater in frequency and intensity than that of Earth’s Sun. The stellar radiation emitted can narrow your arteries and even hinder your body’s ability to generate new cells. This is why the International Space Station is coated with polyethylene plating, to absorb and reflect the solar wind. It is also why, for life to exist on TRAPPIST-1e, both the ozone layer and magnetosphere will need to be exponentially thicker than Earth’s. But even if they are, humans still won’t be adapted to the worst storms in the way the local plants and animals will be.
Thankfully, solar plasma moves at less than 1% of light speed. Extremely fast, but not so fast that orbiting satellites wouldn’t be able to send out a warning signal, giving scientists, civilians and school children a few minutes to respond. As you watch the brilliant green of the aurora glimmer above the red sky, you feel awe for the first time, and you wonder how something so beautiful could be so terrible.
Your Teenage Years
In high school, you ask your mother for a job in the community gardens. You want to better understand her work in xenobotany, but as a teenager you can’t risk showing a genuine interest in something. So of course you use your requisite volunteer hours as an excuse to spend your free time as her understudy. As she leads you up through the gardens, she says that on Earth most farming took place on the plains. Long, flat expanses of land. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work here. A horizontal plain, set against the low angle of the sun, would leave all but the first row of plants in the shadows.
So, to build gardens with plants the sun could reach from its limited angle, the first TRAPPIST farmers had to look at the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the many-tiered rice farms of East Asia for inspiration. Water is funneled up through aqueducts, and then spills over the terraces to keep the plants hydrated. At the highest tier of the gardens, monumental tomato plants tower over you, nearly six meters (20 feet) tall. While TRAPPIST emits only a fraction of our Sun’s light, that growth is never halted by night or destroyed altogether by the cold of winter. Even smaller plants can grow indefinitely, like trees, branching to incredible heights.
Your job is to trim and water them TRAPPIST-style so they grow thicker at the bottom rather than outward in thin tendrils. It’s tedious work, but rewarding. While your mother helps you sometimes, she finds the perennial nature of TRAPPIST-1 farming a little too easy. On Earth, she says, plants are more vulnerable. There's a challenge in producing a whole year’s worth of food in the span of a few months. But here, even a blight doesn’t spell disaster. You can just plant more tomorrow. And besides, you know she’s needed in the far more important task of cataloging the native flora of TRAPPIST-1e, which evolved to be entirely black so as to attract as much light as possible. If she can adapt their alien chemistry for human use, the potential benefits are immeasurable: An entirely new biosphere’s worth of potential cures that could help not just people on TRAPPIST-1e, but all of humanity. You come to wish you could join her in that work. But trimming tomatoes is okay for now.
In your last year of high school, you receive a full-ride scholarship to study botany at university. However, the university is on Earth. Your mom is excited that you’ll be going to her planet, her home. But for you, the shock of leaving your home and living on your own for the first time is compounded by the shock of moving not just out of state, or even to a foreign country, but to a foreign world, entirely alien to you.
Once you land on Earth, you feel existential dread looking up at the night sky, realizing for the first time the vastness of the Universe thanks to the bright look of the Milky Way on one of Earth’s nights. Such a weird concept to you, still. You wear thick sunglasses and sunscreen to protect yourself from the light of a bright, yellow star, which you find blinding compared to the dim light of your red sun.
You often get lost, disoriented and disquieted at a sky which is constantly changing. The Sun, stars and Moon no longer serve as a stable reference point, limiting your sense of direction. You lie awake at night, jetlagged, marveling at the uncanny silence. The white noise of storms and wind which once comforted you are gone. Thankfully, the other students come from faraway worlds as well, Water worlds, verdant moons, places far stranger than your temperate home. And so, all of you, humans from across the Galaxy, adapt to the strangeness of Earth together.
Your mom tells you you’re human, but here on Earth, you feel very much alien.