In the coming years, many ground-based and space-based telescopes will commence operations and collect their first light from cosmic sources. This next-generation of telescopes is not only expected to see farther into the cosmos (and hence, farther back in time), they are also expected to reveal new things about the nature of our Universe, its creation and its evolution.
One of these instruments is the Extremely Large Telescope, an optical telescope that is overseen by the European Southern Observatory. Once it is built, the ELT will be the largest ground-based telescope in the world. Construction began in May of 2017, and the ESO recently released a video that illustrates what it will look like when it is complete.
The world’s most powerful telescopes have a lot of work to do. They’re tasked with helping us unravel the mysteries of the universe, like dark matter and dark energy. They’re burdened with helping us find other habitable worlds that might host life. And they’re busy with a multitude of other tasks, like documenting the end of a star’s life, or keeping an eye on meteors that get too close to Earth.
In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.
The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.
Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.
The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.
As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:
“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”
When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.
The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:
“Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.”
Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.
“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”
In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.
As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:
“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”
And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:
For decades, the most widely-accepted view of how our Solar System formed has been the Nebular Hypothesis. According to this theory, the Sun, the planets, and all other objects in the Solar System formed from nebulous material billions of years ago. This dust experienced a gravitational collapse at the center, forming our Sun, while the rest of the material formed a circumstellar debris ring that coalesced to form the planets.
Thanks to the development of modern telescopes, astronomers have been able to probe other star systems to test this hypothesis. Unfortunately, in most cases, astronomers have only been able to observe debris rings around stars with hints of planets in formation. It was only recently that a team of European astronomers were able to capture an image of a newborn planet, thus demonstrating that debris rings are indeed the birthplace of planets.
For the sake of their studies, the teams selected PDS 70b, a planet that was discovered at a distance of 22 Astronomical Units (AUs) from its host star and which was believed to be a newly-formed body. In the first study – which was led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – the team indicated how they studied the protoplanetary disk around the star PDS 70.
Using these instruments, the team made the first robust detection of a young planet (PDS 70b) orbiting within a gap in its star’s protoplanetary disc and located roughly three billion km (1.86 billion mi) from its central star – roughly the same distance between Uranus and the Sun. In the second study, led by Andre Muller (also from the MPIA) the team describes how they used the SPHERE instrument to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths.
From this, they were able to determine that PDS 70b is a gas giant that has about nine Jupiter masses and a surface temperature of about 1000 °C (1832 °F), making it a particularly “Hot Super-Jupiter”. The planet must be younger than its host star, and is probably still growing. The data also indicated that the planet is surrounded by clouds that alter the radiation emitted by the planetary core and its atmosphere.
Thanks to the advanced instruments used, the team was also able to acquire an image of the planet and its system. As you can see from the image (posted at top) and the video below, the planet is visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened center of the image. This dark region is due to a corongraph, which blocks the light from the star so the team could detect the much-fainter companion.
As Miriam Keppler, a postdoctoral student at the MPIA, explained in a recent ESO press statement:
“These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them. The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”
In addition to spotting the young planet, the research teams also noted that it has sculpted the protoplanetary disc orbiting the star. Essentially, the planet’s orbit has traced a giant hole in the center of the disc after accumulating material from it. This means that PDS 70 b is still located in the vicinity of its birth place, is likely to still be accumulating material and will continue to grow and change.
For decades, astronomers have been aware of these gaps in the protoplanetary disc and speculated that they were produced by a planet. Now, they finally have the evidence to support this theory. As André Müller explained:
“Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution. We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.“
These studies will be a boon to astronomers, especially when it comes to theoretical models of planet formation and evolution. By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers have been able to test key aspects of the Nebular Hypothesis. The discovery of this young, dust-shrouded planet would not have been were if not for the capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument.
This instrument studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging, but also relies on advanced strategies and data processing techniques. In addition to blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE is able to filter out the signals of faint planetary companions around bright young stars at multiple wavelengths and epochs.
As Prof. Thomas Henning – the director at MPIA, the German co-investigator of the SPHERE instrument, and a senior author on the two studies – stated in a recent MPIA press release:
“After ten years of developing new powerful astronomical instruments such as SPHERE, this discovery shows us that we are finally able to find and study planets at the time of their formation. That is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.”
Future observations of this system will also allow astronomers to test other aspects of planet formation models and to learn about the early history of planetary systems. This data will also go a long way towards determining how our own Solar System formed and evolved during its early history.
Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to learn more about this interstellar visitor, and some missions have even been proposed to go and study it up close. However, the most recent study of ‘Oumuamua, conducted by a team of international scientists, has determined that based on the way it left our Solar System, ‘Oumuamua is likely to be a comet after all.
As noted, when it was first discovered – roughly a month after it made its closest approach to the Sun – scientists believed ‘Oumuamua was an interstellar comet. However, follow-up observations showed no evidence of gaseous emissions or a dusty environment around the body (i.e. a comet tail), thus leading to it being classified as a rocky interstellar asteroid.
This was followed by a team of international researchers conducting a study that showed how ‘Oumuamua was more icy that previously thought. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, the team was able to obtain spectra from sunlight reflected off of ‘Oumuamua within 48 hours of the discovery. This revealed vital information about the composition of the object, and pointed towards it being icy rather than rocky.
The presence of an outer-layer of carbon rich material also explained why it did not experience outgassing as it neared the Sun. Following these initial observations, Marco Micheli and his team continued to conduct high-precision measurements of ‘Oumuamua and its position using ground-based facilities and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
By January, Hubble was able to snap some final images before the object became too faint to observe as it sped away from the Sun on its way to leaving the Solar System. To their surprise, they noted that the object was increasing its velocity deviating from the trajectory it would be following if only the gravity of the Sun and the planets were influencing its course.
In short, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua was not slowing down as expected, and as of June 1st, 2018, was traveling at a speed of roughly 114,000 km/h (70,800 mph). The most likely explanation, according to the team, is that ‘Oumuamua is venting material from its surface due to solar heating (aka. outgassing). The release of this material would give ‘Oumuamua the steady push it needed to achieve this velocity.
As Davide Farnocchia, a researcher from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“We tested many possible alternatives and the most plausible one is that ’Oumuamua must be a comet, and that gasses emanating from its surface were causing the tiny variations in its trajectory.”
Moreover, the release of gas pressure would also explain how ‘Oumuamua is veering off course since outgassing has been known to have the effect of perturbing the comet’s path. Naturally, there are still some mysteries that still need to be solved about this body. For one, the team still has not detected any dusty material or chemical signatures that typically characterize a comet.
As such, the team concluded that ‘Oumuamua must have been releasing only a very small amount of dust, or perhaps was releasing more pure gas without much dust. In either case, ‘Oumuamua is estimated to be a very small object, measuring about 400 meters (1312 ft) long. In the end, the hypothesized outgassing of ‘Oumuamua remains a mystery, much like its origin.
In fact, the team originally performed the Hubble observations on ‘Oumuamua in the hopes of determining its exact path, which they would then use to trace the object back to its parent star system. These new results mean this will be more challenging than originally thought. As Olivier Hainaut, a researcher from the European Southern Observatory and a co-author on the study, explained:
“It was extremely surprising that `Oumuamua first appeared as an asteroid, given that we expect interstellar comets should be far more abundant, so we have at least solved that particular puzzle. It is still a tiny and weird object, but our results certainly lean towards it being a comet and not an asteroid after all.”
Detlef Koschny, another co-author on the study, is responsible for Near-Earth Object activities under ESA’s Space Situational Awareness program. As he explained, the study of ‘Oumuamua has provided astronomers with the opportunity to improve asteroid detection methods, which could play a vital role in the study of Near-Earth Asteroids and determining if they post a risk.
“Interstellar visitors like these are scientifically fascinating, but extremely rare,” he said. “Near-Earth objects originating from within our Solar System are much more common and because these could pose an impact risk, we are working to improve our ability to scan the sky every night with telescopes such as our Optical Ground Station that contributed to this fascinating discovery.”
Since ‘Oumuamua’s arrival, scientists have determined that there may be thousands of interstellar asteroids currently in our Solar System, the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. Similarly, another study was conducted that revealed the presence of an interstellar asteroid (2015 BZ509) that – unlike ‘Oumuamua, which was an interloper to out system – was captured by Jupiter’s gravity and has since remained in a stable orbit.
This latest study is also timely given the fact that June 30th is global “Asteroid Day”, an annual event designed to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact. In honor of this event, the ESA co-hosted a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory to discuss the latest science news and research on asteroids. To watch a replay of the webcast, go to the ESA’s Asteroid Day webpage.
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.
We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.
The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.
There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.
SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.
Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.
Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.
The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.
One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.
We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.
The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.
It’s been 20 years since the first of the four Unit Telescopes that comprise the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) saw first light. Since the year 2000 all four of them have been in operation. One of the original goals of the VLT was to have all four of the ‘scopes work in combination, and that has now been achieved.
The instrument that combines the light from all four of the VLT ‘scopes is called ESPRESSO, which stands for Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. ESPRESSO captures the light from each of the 8.2 meter mirrors in the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT. That combination makes ESPRESSO, in effect, the largest optical telescope in the world.
Combining the power of the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT is a huge milestone for the ESO. As ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO, Gaspare Lo Curto, says, “ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s: bringing the light from all four Unit Telescopes on Cerro Paranal together at an incoherent focus to feed a single instrument!” The excitement is real, because along with its other science goals, ESPRESSO will be an extremely powerful planet-hunting telescope.
“ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s.” – Gaspare Lo Curto, ESPRESSO instrument scientist.
ESPRESSO uses a system of mirrors, lenses, and prisms to transmit the light from each of the four VLT ‘scopes to the spectrograph. This is accomplished with a network of tunnels that was incorporated into the VLT when it was built. ESPRESSO has the flexibility to combine the light from all four, or from any one of the telescopes. This observational flexibility was also an original design goal for ESPRESSO.
The four Unit Telescopes often operate together as the VLT Interferometer, but that’s much different than ESPRESSO. The VLT Interferometer allows astronomers to study extreme detail in bright objects, but it doesn’t combine the light from the four Unit Telescopes into one instrument. ESPRESSO collects the light from all four ‘scopes and splits it into its component colors. This allows detailed analysis of the composition of distant objects.
ESPRESSO is a very complex instrument, which explains why it’s taken until now to be implemented. It works with a principle called “incoherent focus.” In this sense, “incoherent” means that the light from all four telescopes is added together, but the phase information isn’t included as it is with the VLT Interferometer. What this boils down to is that while both the VLT Interferometer and ESPRESSO both use the light of all four VLT telescopes, ESPRESSO only has the spatial resolution of a single 8.2 mirror. ESPRESSO, as its name implies, is all about detailed spectrographic analysis. And in that, it will excel.
“ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes gives us an enticing foretaste of what the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will offer in a few years.” – ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons
ESPRESSO is the successor to HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, which up until now has been our best exoplanet hunter. HARPS is a 3.6 meter telescope operated by the ESO, and also based on an echelle spectrograph. But the power of ESPRESSO will dwarf that of HARPS.
There are three main science goals for ESPRESSO:
Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
ESPRESSO will take highly precise measurements of the radial velocities of solar type stars in other solar systems. As an exoplanet orbits its star, it takes part in a dance or tug-of-war with the star, the same way planets in our Solar System do with our Sun. ESPRESSO will be able to measure very small “dances”, which means it will be able to detect very small planets. Right now, our planet-hunting instruments aren’t as sensitive as ESPRESSO, which means our exoplanet search results are biased to larger planets. ESPRESSO should detect more smaller, Earth-size planets.
Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
This is where the light-combining power of ESPRESSO will be most useful. ESPRESSO will be used to observe extremely distant and faint quasars, to try and measure the variation of the fundamental physical constants in our Universe. (If there are any variations, that is.) It’s not only the instrument’s light-combining capability that allows this, but also the instrument’s extreme stability.
Specifically, the ESPRESSO will try to take our most accurate measurements yet of the fine structure constant, and the proton to electron mass ratio. Astronomers want to know if these have changed over time. They will use ESPRESSO to examine the ancient light from these distant quasars to measure any change.
Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
ESPRESSO will open up new possibilities in the measurement of stars in nearby galaxies. It’s high efficiency and high resolution will allow astronomers to study stars outside of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail. A better understanding of stars in other galaxies is always a priority item in astronomy.
We’ll let Project Scientist Paolo Molaro have the last word, for now. “This impressive milestone is the culmination of work by a large team of scientists and engineers over many years. It is wonderful to see ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes and I look forward to the exciting science results to come.”
When we finally find life somewhere out there beyond Earth, it’ll be at the end of a long search. Life probably won’t announce its presence to us, we’ll have to follow a long chain of clues to find it. Like scientists keep telling us, at the start of that chain of clues is water.
The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system last year generated a lot of excitement. 7 planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, only 40 light years from Earth. At the time, astronomers thought at least some of them were Earth-like. But now a new study shows that some of the planets could hold more water than Earth. About 250 times more.
This new study focuses on the density of the 7 TRAPPIST-1 planets. Trying to determine that density is a challenging task, and it involved some of the powerhouses in the world of telescopes. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, and the SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) facility at ESO’s Paranal Observatory were all used in the study.
In this study, the observations from the three telescopes were subjected to complex computer modelling to determine the densities of the 7 TRAPPIST planets. As a result, we now know that they are all mostly made of rock, and that some of them could be 5% water by mass. (Earth is only about 0.02% water by mass.)
Finding the densities of these planets was not easy. To do so, scientists had to determine both the mass and the size. The TRAPPIST-1 planets were found using the transit method, where the light of the host star dips as the planets pass between their star and us. The transit method gives us a pretty good idea of the size of the planets, but that’s it.
It’s a lot harder to find the mass, because planets with different masses can have the same orbits and we can’t tell them apart. But in multi-planet systems like TRAPPIST-1, there is a way.
As the planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, more massive planets disturb the orbits of the other planets more than lighter ones. This changes the timing of the transits. These effects are “complicated and very subtle” according to the team, and it took a lot of observation and measurement of the transit timing—and very complex computer modelling—to determine their densities.
Lead author Simon Grimm explains how it was done: “The TRAPPIST-1 planets are so close together that they interfere with each other gravitationally, so the times when they pass in front of the star shift slightly. These shifts depend on the planets’ masses, their distances and other orbital parameters. With a computer model, we simulate the planets’ orbits until the calculated transits agree with the observed values, and hence derive the planetary masses.”
So, what about the water?
First of all, this study didn’t detect water. It detected volatile material which is probably water.
Whether or not they’ve confirmed the presence of water, these are still very important results. We’re getting good at finding exoplanets, and the next step is to determine the properties of any atmospheres that exoplanets have.
Team member Eric Agol comments on the significance: “A goal of exoplanet studies for some time has been to probe the composition of planets that are Earth-like in size and temperature. The discovery of TRAPPIST-1 and the capabilities of ESO’s facilities in Chile and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit have made this possible — giving us our first glimpse of what Earth-sized exoplanets are made of!”
This study doesn’t tell us if any of the TRAPPIST planets have life on them, or even if they’re habitable. It’s just one more step on the path to hopefully, maybe, one day, finding life somewhere. Study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, at the University of Bern, said as much: “Densities, while important clues to the planets’ compositions, do not say anything about habitability. However, our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life.”
This is what the study determined about the different planets in the TRAPPIST system:
TRAPPIST 1-b and 1c are the two innermost planets and are likely to have rocky cores and be surrounded by atmospheres much thicker than Earth’s.
TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets at about 30 percent the mass of Earth. We’re uncertain whether it has a large atmosphere, an ocean or an ice layer.
TRAPPIST-1e is a bit of a surprise. It’s the only planet in the system slightly denser than Earth. It may have a denser iron core, and it does not necessarily have a thick atmosphere, ocean or ice layer. TRAPPIST-1e is a mystery because it appears to be so much rockier than the rest of the planets. It’s the most similar to Earth, in size, density and the amount of radiation it receives from its star.
TRAPPIST-1f, g and h might have frozen surfaces. If they have thin atmospheres, they would be unlikely to contain the heavy molecules that we find on Earth, such as carbon dioxide.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is going to be studied for a very long time. It promises to be one of the first targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (we hope.) It’s a very intriguing system, and whether or not any of the planets are deemed habitable, studying them will teach us a lot about our search for water, habitability, and life.
Ever since the Kepler space telescope began discovering thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy, astronomers have been eagerly awaiting the day when next-generation missions are deployed. These include the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to take to space in 2019, but also the many ground-based observatories that are currently being constructed.
The Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) consists of monitoring stars for periodic dips in brightness. These dips are caused by planets passing in front of the star (aka. transiting) relative to the observer. In the past, detecting planets around M-type stars using this method has been challenging since red dwarfs are the smallest and dimmest class of star in the known Universe and emit the majority of their light in the near-infrared band.
However, these stars have also proven to be treasure trove when it comes to rocky, Earth-like exoplanets. In recent years, rocky planets have been discovered around star’s like Proxima Centauri and Ross 128, while TRAPPIST-1 had a system of seven rocky planets. In addition, there have been studies that have indicated that potentially-habitable, rocky planets could be very common around red dwarf stars.
Unlike other facilities, the ExTrA project is well-suited to conduct surveys for planets around red dwrfs because of its location on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert in Chile. As Xavier Bonfils, the project’s lead researcher, explained:
“La Silla was selected as the home of the telescopes because of the site’s excellent atmospheric conditions. The kind of light we are observing – near-infrared – is very easily absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, so we required the driest and darkest conditions possible. La Silla is a perfect match to our specifications.”
In addition, the ExTrA facility will rely on a novel approach that involves combining optical photometry with spectroscopic information. This consists of its three telescopes collecting light from a target star and four companion stars for comparison. This light is then fed through optical fibers into a multi-object spectrograph in order to analyze it in many different wavelengths.
This approach increases the level of achievable precision and helps mitigate the disruptive effect of Earth’s atmosphere, as well as the potential for error introduced by instruments and detectors. Beyond the goal of simply finding planets transiting in front of their red dwarf stars, the ExTrA telescopes will also study the planets it finds in order to determine their compositions and their atmospheres.
In short, it will help determine whether or not these planets could truly be habitable. As Jose-Manuel Almenara, a member of the ExTrA team, explained:
“With ExTrA, we can also address some fundamental questions about planets in our galaxy. We hope to explore how common these planets are, the behaviour of multi-planet systems, and the sorts of environments that lead to their formation,”
The potential to search for extra-solar planets around red dwarf stars is an immense opportunity for astronomers. Not only are they the most common star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in our galaxy alone, they are also very long-lived. Whereas stars like our Sun have a lifespan of about 10 billion years, red dwarfs are capable of remaining in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years.
For these reasons, there are those who think that M-type stars are our best bet for finding habitable planets in the long run. At the same time, there are unresolved questions about whether or not planets that orbit red dwarf stars can stay habitable for long, owing to their variability and tendency to flare up. But with ExTrA and other next-generation instruments entering into service, astronomers may be able to address these burning questions.
“With the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, we may be able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets found by ExTra to try to assess the viability of these worlds to support life as we know it. The study of exoplanets is bringing what was once science fiction into the world of science fact.”