In May 2016, Michael Gillon and his team announced the discovery of three Earth-sized exoplanets around TRAPPIST-1, an ultra cool M-dwarf star, using the small TRAPPIST telescope at ESO-La Silla, Chile. It was an exciting discovery—yet on that day no one could possibly have imagined that less than a year later they would make another significant discovery involving the same system. But here we are: today, they announced in Nature the discovery of seven potentially habitable Earth-like worlds.
The star, named TRAPPIST-1, is a fairly inconspicuous star in our Milky Way. Small (8% the mass of the sun) and cold (half the temperature of the sun), it is a member of an ultra-cool dwarf population that represents 15% of the star population of our galaxy. In 2016, Gillon and his team detected the transit (i.e., the shadow of a planet passing between its host star and us) of three exoplanets at the inner edge of the habitable zone of their star.
Energized and excited by this discovery, the team requested and received additional telescope time to follow up on this system during the second half of 2016. The NASA Spitzer telescope is one of the facilities they selected for an ambitious program that called for monitoring the TRAPPIST-1 system almost continuously for twenty days. Spitzer and other ground-based telescopes allowed the team to detect thirty-four transits, more than they had anticipated, suggesting the existence of additional exoplanets in the system.
After an careful analysis, the data revealed the presence of seven Earth-sized exoplanets (named TRAPPIST 1b, c, d, e, f, g, and h) in orbit around this M-type star. Because their orbital periods are short (less than twelve days for planets b to g), several transits were detected during the campaign. Accurately measurements of those tiny events (0.6% dimming of the star) provide a wealth of information about the planets’ orbits, sizes, and even masses by measuring precisely the timings of the transits which are perturbed by the gravity of other planets.
So what have we learned about the TRAPPIST-1 system?
What can’t we say about the TRAPPIST-1 system?
Last year, astronomers announced the discovery of a potentially terrestrial planet around Proxima Centauri, located only 4.2 light-years away from us. Today, this group reveals the existence of seven potentially habitable worlds around a small star that could live forever. The field of exoplanet is without doubt booming, and it is not over.
A team led by Emmanuel Jehin from Université de Liege, co-author of the paper, is currently building Speculoos, a TRAPPIST telescope “on steroid”, made of four 1 meter robotic telescope installed at Cerro Paranal. With this telescope, the team will survey 10 times more red dwarfs than Trappist did. So we could expect the discovery of a dozen systems similar to this one soon. We will have the opportunity to explore the diversity of atmospheres and climates on Earth-like worlds, and potentially life out there.
The discovery of these strange new worlds where life could flourish is the beginning of an exciting time for astronomers and biologists. A time when we are beginning to see the unimaginable, a time when life as we don’t know it can be imaged and studied. We will probably need to build complex and expensive instruments to understand those worlds—but what an astonishing, awe-inspiring, life-changing prize to win, don’t you think?