NASA released a few hours ago new raw data from the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. They are the result of a long series of observations made by the Kepler telescope. We won’t know much until we break down this data, but it does offer us some clues.
A few weeks ago NASA announced the discovery of seven new Earth-sized planets orbiting a dwarf star just 39 light-years away. Confined in a system now called TRAPPIST-1, these new planets seem rocky and with temperatures considered « friendly » which could allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Thus TRAPPIST-1 would be the perfect place to look for possible extraterrestrial life. From then on, the world began to speculate on the viability of these new planets and imagine different environments, different landscapes given the stellar activity of the dwarf star around which these planets orbit. We must all the same agree on one thing: as long as we cannot get close enough and as long as the new James Webb telescope (100 times more powerful than Hubble) will not be commissioned (not before 2018), we will not we will never know for sure if extraterrestrial life is evolving on one or more of these planets.
On the other hand, NASA is not stingy with information, as evidenced by new, still raw data published by the American agency a few hours ago. The initial discovery of TRAPPIST-1 was the result of combined observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope and other terrestrial instruments. But since December 15, Kepler has been keeping its eye on the system continuously to make follow-up observations. And this week, additional data has been freely released. This way, the scientific community and you and I can consult them (you will however need Python-based Kadenza software to extract the raw data files).
In total, the observation period is spread over 74 days of monitoring. Unfortunately, we cannot say exactly what is hidden in this gold mine at the moment as the data is believed. It will take a few weeks before scientists can dissect them and make sense of them. On the other hand, this release of early information gives scientists an opportunity to get a better idea of the gravitational interaction between the planets. The variations in brightness offered by the dwarf star will also allow researchers to estimate the size and mass of planets passing in front of their host star. In particular, they hope to be able to pin down the orbital period of the seventh and last planet, which has only made one and only one pass in front of its star so far. Observations can also reveal information about the star’s magnetic activity, which will greatly affect its habitable zone.
Providing this raw data so quickly is today a priority for NASA, which intends to take advantage of everyone’s opinion in order to define its research and monitoring plans. The agency says it is “delighted” to be able to allow the public to witness the entire discovery process. And U.S. too.