Seven Terrestrial Exoplanets Around a Nearby Star
by Staff Writers
Bern, Switzerland (SPX) Feb 22, 2017
TRAPPIST-1 is the name of the small, ultracool star that is the new hot topic in astronomy and the search for life outside our solar system. Observing the star with telescopes from the ground and space during an extensive campaign, an international team found that there are at least seven terrestrial planets around TRAPPIST-1. Their temperatures are low enough to make possible liquid water on the surfaces, as the researchers report in the journal Nature.
"Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today," says Brice-Olivier Demory, professor at the University of Bern's Center for Space and Habitability and one of the authors of the Nature paper.
The configuration of these exoplanets orbiting a dwarf star makes it possible to study their atmospheric properties with current and future telescopes. "The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, will have the possibility to detect the signature of ozone if this molecule is present in the atmosphere of one of these planets," explains Demory.
"This could be an indicator for biological activity on the planet." But the astrophysicist warns that we must remain extremely careful about inferring biological activity from afar and that everything could be different than expected.
Observing from All Over the World and Space
After this discovery the researchers observed the star for months with different telescopes in Chile, Morocco, Hawaii, La Palma and South Africa, and in September 2016, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope monitored TRAPPIST-1 for 20 days. Exploiting all the data the astronomers found that the TRAPPIST-1 system is a compact analogue of our inner solar system with at least seven planets.
Bernese Computer Simulations Confirmed
In a paper published in October 2016, Yann Alibert and Willy Benz, both astrophysics professors at the University of Bern as well, had already predicted based on their computer simulations that such planets around dwarf stars should be common.
Earth-like exoplanets orbiting dwarf stars are easier to observe than real Earth twins around solar-type stars. Since these dwarfs are also much cooler, the temperature zone that allows water to be liquid on the surface of the planet is much closer to the star. And exoplanets that are close to their host star revolve more rapidly and produce more transits in a given timeframe.
"About 15 percent of the stars in our neighbourhood are very cool stars like TRAPPIST-1," says Brice-Olivier Demory. "We have a list of about 600 targets that we will observe in the future."
To monitor the candidate stars in the northern hemisphere the Center for Space and Habitability (CSH) of the University of Bern is leading a consortium that builds a new telescope in Mexico.
"Seven Temperate Terrestrial Planets Around the Nearby Ultracool Dwarf Star TRAPPIST-1," Michael Gillon, Amaury Triaud, Brice-Oliver Demory et al., 23 Feb. 2017, Nature
Santiago, Chile (SPX) Feb 22, 2017
In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked, "Where are they?" as a kind of lament about the lack of observational evidence for alien intelligence in our universe. Today, the question is still asked in the context of the always-hoped-for discovery of other worlds like our own, with the thought that maybe, just maybe, we will finally find those aliens. Against this backdrop, advances tha ... read more
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