At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius, exists a system of planets. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets. This is the first known system of 7 Earth-sized planets around a single star, revealed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. 3 out of 7 planets are located firmly in the habitable zone and most likely to have liquid water – the key to life as we know.
This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.
Unlike our Sun, TRAPPIST – 1 Star is very cool, it is classified as an Ultra-cool dwarf. It is so cool that liquid water could exist on the closest planet orbiting around it. All 7 TRAPPIST – 1 planets are closer to their star than Mercury to the Sun.
If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could see geological features or clouds of neighboring planets, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky. So, boys have much more Moons to gift or to compare with girl’s beauty. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.
The major telescope used to view the TRAPPIST – 1 Star is Spitzer. It is an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system.
Below is a Virtual Reality video where you can actually feel being on TRAPPIST – 1d (360 view). 6 planets are visible above the horizon, Can you spot them all? Just drag your mouse for desktop or swipe on the video screen for mobile to have a 360 view.
Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.
Watch below video by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.