Since NASA first announced the discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a dwarf star just 39 light-years away, imaginations have run wild as to what these mysterious worlds might look like.
Now, the space agency has revealed the much-awaited first glimpse at the Trappist-1 system – but, it might not be the alien landscape you’re hoping for.
Raw data from the Kepler space telescope released this week show a pixelated first look at our ‘ultra-cool neighbour,’ with tiny blips in brightness indicating the presence of transiting planets passing in front of the star.
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The space agency has revealed the much-awaited first glimpse at the Trappist-1 system – but, it might not be the alien landscape you’re hoping for. Kepler has been observing Trappist-1 since December, and the newly released dataset accounts for 74 days of monitoring
Breathtaking illustrations from artists in recent weeks have painted a captivating picture of these mysterious planets.
While the new view might not satisfy our imaginations just yet, these observations are of great value to the scientific community.
Kepler has been observing Trappist-1 since December, and the newly released dataset accounts for 74 days of monitoring, from Dec 15 to March 4.
The system was first spotted by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in combination with ground-based telescopes.
And, with these additional observations, scientists can refine their existing measurements of six of the planets in the system, and get a better understanding of the orbital period and mass of the seventh.
It could also reveal more information on the host star’s magnetic activity.
‘Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds,’ said Geert Barentsen, K2 research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
‘Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans.
Breathtaking illustrations from artists in recent weeks have painted a captivating picture of these mysterious planets. While the new view might not satisfy our imaginations just yet, these observations are of great value to the scientific community
|Name||Orbit (days)||Mass (where 1.0 = mass of Earth)||Distance to star (millions of miles)||Distance to star (millions of km)||Possibility of hosting alien life|
|1b||1.5||0.85||1.02||1.64||Less likely – too hot|
|1c||2.4||1.38||1.39||2.24||Less likely – too hot|
|1d||4||0.41||1.95||3.14||Less likely – too hot|
|1h||20||unknown||5.58||8.97||Less likely – too cold|
‘We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.’
The dataset represents the longest, nearly continuous study yet of this newly-discovered system, and will allow researchers to study the gravitational interactions of the planets within.
And, it will allow them to search for any planets that may have so far evaded discovery.
If Kepler had followed its initial coordinates set in October 2015, defined as Campaign 12, it would have missed the planets.
But, after the discovery of three of the planets in the system was announced in May, researchers reworked the calculations.
This chart shows, on the top row, artist impressions of the seven planets of Trappist-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. The bottom row shows data about Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The seven planets’ orbits are closer to their star than Venus, Earth or Mars, and are therefore significantly shorter
Not only will these observations be of use to scientists working to refine their measurements now, but NASA says the mission could help plan future studies with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
‘We were lucky that the K2 mission was able to observe Trappist-1,’ said Michael Haas, science office director for the Kepler and K2 missions at Ames.
‘The observing field for Campaign 12 was set when the discovery of the first planets orbiting Trappist-1 was announced, and the science community has already submitted proposals for specific targets of interest in the field.
‘The unexpected opportunity to further study the Trappist-1 system was quickly recognized the agility of the K2 team and science community prevailed once again.’
THE TRAPPIST-1 SOLAR SYSTEM
The newly discovered star system is just 39 light years from Earth.
– Seven Earth-sized worlds are orbiting a dwarf star known as Trappist-1
– Six inner planets lie in a temperate zone where surface temperatures range from 0-100°C (32-212°F)
– Of these, at least three are thought to be capable of having oceans, increasing the likelihood of life
The Trappist-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf, has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. This graphic shows how the outer orbiting 1h is an icy planet, while inner orbiting 1b, 1c and 1d are likely to be hot and dry. An artist’s concept is pictured
– Scientists say life may have already evolved on at least three of the planets
– No other star system known contains such a large number of Earth-sized and probably rocky planets
– They were found using the ‘transit’ method that looks for tiny amounts of dimming caused by a world blocking light from its star