Here's Our First Glorious View of the TRAPPIST-1 Star System

By Rae Paoletta on at

Last month, the solar system lost its collective chill when NASA announced the discovery of a seven-planet system called TRAPPIST-1, just 39 light-years from our Sun. The system is particularly exciting, not only because of its proximity to our planet, but because it has three planets within the habitable zone, where liquid water (and potentially life) could be supported. There’s already a website dedicated to these mysterious planets, filled with stunning art and literal fan fiction. In short, TRAPPIST-1 is already getting the One Direction treatment.

But amid our justifiable TRAPPIST-1 freakout, one major question remains: What does it look like? Remember, these planets have only been detected using the transit method, in which scientists measure dips in a star’s light output as a planetary body crosses in front from our line of sight. While we have some pretty incredible concept art that imagines what these planets could look like, the truth is, we have no idea — until now. Sort of.

On Wednesday, March 8th, NASA finally released its first-ever glimpse at the TRAPPIST-1 system. BEHOLD:

Image: NASA

While this isn’t the grand reveal we might have been hoping for, it’s a step toward learning more about a very tantalising system. In addition to this movie, NASA has released all the raw, uncalibrated data for observations of TRAPPIST-1. The data were collected over 74 days—from December 15th, 2016 to March 4th—by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, as part of the ongoing K2 mission. Kepler measured the dimming of TRAPPIST-1's star as its seven Earth-sized planets passed in front of it, blocking some of its light. That’s what’s causing pixels to flicker in the image above.

Through Kepler’s observations, scientists hope to better nail down the TRAPPIST-1 planets’ orbital periods, and the dynamics of the host star.

“Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds,” K2 research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre Geert Barentsen said in a statement. “Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans. We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.”

NASA expects the fully calibrated data to be ready by May. Citizen scientists, assemble!

[NASA, NASA]