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JWST's First Image Of TRAPPIST-1 – One Of Our Best Candidates For Finding Life

This is the best look we have at an extraordinary system, which is one of our best candidates for finding life.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockJul 26 2022, 11:04 UTC
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An illustration of an exoplanet, with its host star in the background.
JWST will not capture images like this illustration, sorry to disappoint. Image credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

An amateur on Reddit has created the first image of the TRAPPIST-1 system using data from JWST. Exoplanet fans will be excited to hear that JWST – a telescope so powerful it makes Hubble look like someone has smeared their thumb on the lens – has already taken a long first look at the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Using publicly available data from the JWST, Redditor arizonaskies2022 was able to piece together the first image of the star, potentially while one of its planets was transiting it, though this has not yet been confirmed.

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"Both images are public raw data files I found and downloaded from MAST website," Arizonaskies2022 explained on the JWST subreddit. "I did minimal processing neither image is cropped just a little stretch and color."

Go here for a better look.

TRAPPIST-1 is exciting to astronomers for a number of reasons, not least because it has seven roughly Earth-sized planets orbiting around it, with three in the habitable zone. The ultra-cool red dwarf is just 40 light-years from us, making it easier to study, and it may even have huge amounts of water

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Now that JWST is up and pointing at it, we could learn about the planets' atmospheres, should they have any at all.

“Our goal,” principal investigator of a JWST program surveying four of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, Olivia Lim, told The Planetary Society, "is to tell whether the planets TRAPPIST-1b, c, g, and h have an atmosphere or not, and to do that, we will try to detect features of molecules such as carbon dioxide, water, and ozone in the transit spectra of those planets.”

Results from studies like these will not just tell us about TRAPPIST-1 and its planets, but could potentially help us make educated guesses about other solar systems out there, and where best to search for life. For instance, if we found that the rocky planets closer to the star were devoid of atmosphere, potentially removed by the solar flares of their host stars, it could help us narrow down what position in solar systems are more likely to harbor life.

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“This system provides an opportunity to test the concept of the habitable zone outside of the Solar System,” co-investigator of a JWST program that will observe TRAPPIST-1h, Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, added to The Planetary Society.

“TRAPPIST-1 is so different from the Sun, and the planets orbit so close to it, that it’s likely that there will be many surprises in our study of this system, and our efforts to understand these surprises will push forward the boundaries of planetary science.”

More data and images will likely come soon, from teams studying the system. Until then, this is the best look we have at an extraordinary system, and one of our best candidates for finding life.


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