Feast your eyes and behold, our first glorious image of the TRAPPIST-1 system 40 light-years away, revealing… well, not that much.
Yes, those few pixels above represent the light from the ultra-cool dwarf star seen by the Kepler space telescope over about an hour. There are 11 by 11 pixels in total, captured by Kepler on February 22. “This area is equivalent in size to holding up a grain of sand at arms length towards the sky,” NASA said.
While you can’t see much in the image and animation below, composed of 60 brightness measurements or photos, Kepler uses data like this to look for planets by noticing dips in the light of a star as planets pass in front, known as the transit method. We know that TRAPPIST-1 has seven rocky worlds, three of which might be habitable, although you can’t see them here. Each causes the star’s brightness to dip by less than 1 percent.
This view of TRAPPIST-1 was shown as part of raw data NASA released from Kepler last week. The telescope observed the star for 74 days from December 15, 2016 until March 4, and this data should help scientists get a better understanding of the orbits and sizes of the worlds in the system. The flickering in the pixels represent corrections for Kepler’s small movements in space.
With three of the planets in the habitable zone, there is a lot of excitement about TRAPPIST-1. It’s thought these worlds could have liquid water on the surface, and upcoming telescopes like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could help us work out the atmospheric composition of the planets.
At just 40 light-years away, these worlds may be some of the best places to look for life beyond the Solar System. So all eyes will be on TRAPPIST-1 for the next few years at least.
An animation of Kepler's view of TRAPPIST-1 for one hour. NASA Ames/G. Barentsen