Artist rendering of the seven planets discovered in the TRAPPIST-1 system
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Well, not precisely – but it did get astonishingly close. Five days ago NASA announced that they had discovered a red dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1 about 12 parsecs away (one parsec is the distance at which one astronomical unit subtends an angle of one arcsecond, or about 3.26 light-years). They had known about the star already, but what they learned is that it has seven planets, all Earth-sized. Three of those are in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone, just far enough away from their star for water to be a liquid, and not so far that any water would be frozen solid.  That news was staggering enough. Two days ago Frontier Development, the creators of the game Elite: Dangerous, made their own startling announcement.

It would have been impossible to accurately recreate the entire galaxy. There are about 400 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”) star systems in their universe model.  The Stellar Forge is the engine in Elite Dangerous that creates the in-game universe based on galactic star charts, but only the major stars are in it. The rest are extrapolated from the basic information, and knowing what materials are generally available in what parts of the cosmos.

Which is why, in game, the existence of a brown dwarf star with seven planets, in the same approximate location and configuration as TRAPPIST-1 and its seven worlds, is such a big deal. The star, currently called Core Sys Sector XU-P A5-0, is being renamed TRAPPIST-1 and having small tweaks made to its location and stellar type so that it will be ready for version the version 2.3 release. Here’s the statement from Frontier Development CEO David Braban:

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’.

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.

David Braben

The question on everyone’s minds at this point is, “What other discoveries in the real universe around us might be made from examining the Elite: Dangerous database?” What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

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