The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last December, has been slowly powering up its instruments and unfurling its sunshield, and is now in the process of aligning its mirrors in preparation for operation. Within a few months, the most powerful space telescope ever built is going to set its sights on the stars. Astronomers are hoping that what JWST sees will change the way we understand our universe, just as the Hubble Space Telescope did decades before.
One tantalizing capability that JWST offers that Hubble could not is the opportunity to directly image planets orbiting distant stars, and maybe, just maybe, detect signs of life.
In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable.
In accordance with this goal, these studies have focused on whether or not these planets have atmospheres, their compositions and their interiors. One of the latest studies was conducted by two researchers from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Laboratory, who determined that one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets (TRAPPIST-1e) has a large iron core – a finding which could have implications for this planet’s habitability.