A ground-breaking discovery has been made by the NASA astronomers. They found that there is a new solar system (known as TRAPPIST-1) which orbits TRAPPIST–1’s star. This new found solar system has 7 planets which are roughly the size of our beloved planet – Earth. Guess what? There can be life on 3 of those 7 planets. So, we guess these sketchy details aren’t enough to quench your thirst for knowledge. Let’s jump into details.
What did Nasa Find?
Spitzer Space Telescope of NASA found the first system (known to man) which is akin to our solar system with 7 planets. Three of the 7 planets are in the habitable zone i.e., a zone in a solar system (any solar system) where planets have the most probability of having a solid surface and water in its liquid form (which are key factors for life’s sustenance). All the 7 planets may have liquid water but the probability of having life is the most for those 3 planets which are in the habitable zone.
This solar system is just 40 light years or 235 trillion miles away from our solar system. This huge distance is considered pretty close by our astronomers. This solar system is named as TRAPPIST-1 which is an abbreviated form of “The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope” (the new solar system is named after this satellite), which is located in Chile. TRAPPIST-1 is located in the constellation of Aquarius and because it is not a part of our solar system, the planets of TRAPPIST-1 are referred to as exoplanets. Earlier in May 2016, TRAPPIST discovered 3 planets and then with the help of “Very Large Telescope” of European Southern Observatory, Spitzer confirmed the presence of two planets and found 5 more planets. These results were published in the journal Nature and announced at Washington, NASA’s headquarters.
Exact size of the planets found from data
Spitzer’s data made the astronomers not only know the mass of the first six planets but also estimate the density of those planets. This was possible because the astronomers managed to calculate the exact size of all seven planets. The seventh planet or the farthest planet’s mass is yet to be known and it is estimated that it is completely filled with ice and snow like a snowball. With the six planets’ density known, the possibility of planets being rocky is high, say the scientists. Further observations will help in finding whether these planets are water rich and if their surfaces have water in liquid form or not.
About TRAPPIST-1 Solar System
The TRAPPIST-1’s sun is different from our sun. It is an ultra-cool-dwarf if we go by the classification, which means that presence of liquid water on the surface of the planets revolving closer to this sun is very much possible. The distance between all the seven planets and their sun is lesser than the distance between mercury and our sun. The planets are very close to each other, so close that a person standing on one planet can actually see the clouds and even some geological features of other planets.
The planets are tidally locked to their sun which means that only one side of the planet faces the sun. This means that one side of the planet has day and the other side has night all the time. Weather would be completely different in these planets with the wind blowing from day side of the planet to the night side and of course, there will be extreme temperature fluctuations to deal with.
The sun of TRAPPIST-1 glows the brightest in infrared light and Spitzer is an infrared telescope which trails earth and orbits the sun. In 2016’s fall, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 for 500 hours at a stretch and a “warm mission” of Spitzer (where the ability of Spitzer to observe this system was enhanced by engineers) helped in gaining such valuable data about the new solar system. During “warm mission” Spitzer was given an optimization touch where it could actually observe planets that are in transit. In case you didn’t know, the warm mission came in after the coolant that was used for the spacecraft was completed exhausted after the spacecraft remained operational for 5 years. This was actually planned.
Sean Carey, NASA’s Spitzer Science Center’s manager was quoted saying,
Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.
Spitzer Science Center is located in California’s Pasadena at Caltech/IPAC.
Hubble and Kepler in business
After this discovery, Hubble Space Telescope of NASA started screening four exoplanets which include the three planets which fall in the habitable region of the new solar system. The observations are made to estimate whether the planet’s atmosphere is filled with hydrogen which is typical of gaseous planets (of our very own solar system).
Hubble Space Telescope, in 2016, May, observed that the two innermost planets don’t have such atmospheres that are puffy and hydrogen-rich. This proved that the two innermost planets boast rocky surface. Kepler Space telescope of NASA, which is working as a K2 mission, is also studying TRAPPIST-1. It is observing all the minute changes that are occurring in the new sun’s brightness due to the exoplanets transiting against the backdrop of the sun. It will help in knowing the accurate data of the known planets and will also search for any new planets.
All the three – Spitzer, Kepler Space telescope, and Hubble Space Telescope will aid in the planning process of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope of NASA which is launching in 2018. It will be highly sensitive and can detect water, methane, ozone, etc. on the exoplanets’ atmosphere. It will track changes in pressure and temperature which are key to estimate whether these planets can sustain life or not.