What does beer have to do with space exploration and celestial bodies? That query is best answered by the Belgian scientists who recently spotted a new planetary system and gave it a rare nomenclature - TRAPPIST-1, after beer brewed in Trappist monasteries.
Roots of the popular Belgian monastic beer run deep into several centuries. The beer fixation is evident again when the scientists nicknamed some exoplanets in TRAPPIST-1 after some more Trappist beers like Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Orval.
The discovery of the planetary system was announced in February. TRAPPIST-1, barely 40 light-years away, is a cluster of seven planets, each with a size close to that of Earth. They were found circling a red dwarf star.
Within that group of planets, the likelihood of life is quite high in three as they are located in the zone's habitable zone. That makes the possibility of finding liquid water on their surface pretty high.
High Recall Value
Reflecting on the beer link to the names of the planets discovered, one of the key astronomers in the team highlights the high recall value coming from the beer.
"People remember it very well because (the name) is very peculiar and that it is linked to a Belgian project," said astronomer Emmanuel Jehin.
The Trappist stamp is apparent even in their office, where beer bottles with Trappist labels and posters of exoplanets can be found aplenty. The scientists monitor their telescopes at far-off Chile and Morocco from the comfort of a "control room" with just four computers.
Jehin and teammate Michaël Gillon are quite vocal about the TRAPPIST system and the mysteries it may be carrying. They also recall the struggles they underwent in accomplishing the project's success.
Benefit Of Lateral Thinking
Just as the offbeat name of the planetary system emanated from a popular beer brand, the very idea of chasing the exoplanets was also an offbeat idea.
This is because previous theoretical studies have suggested that Earth-size planets orbiting ultracool dwarf stars are unlikely, with the stars being too small. That principle makes astronomers focus on sun-sized stars. Past exoplanet discoveries also showed them orbiting massive stars. Gillon said he does not believe in the preconceived theory.
"When they are not constrained by observations, they are worth nothing. They are just theoretical speculations, with nice equations," he added.
Gillon decided to swim against the current and started taking dwarf stars seriously because they were closer, smaller, and easier to search for life. It is 80 times easier to study these exoplanets as they cast a shadow on their host star during transit.
Referring to the speculation that aliens inhabit exoplanets, Gillon noted that such theories existed even during the time of Isaac Newton with speculations that aliens lived around stars.
Flush with the success of TRAPPIST-1 discovery, the astronomers will be one step closer to finding scientific answers for such speculations on aliens.
"That is what makes this so exciting," Gillon adds.