Seven Earth-sized planets discovered around dwarf star 40 light-years distant

Image: Star system with planets. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/spaceengine.org

This artist’s impression shows the view from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. At least seven planets orbit this ultra cool dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and they are all roughly the same size as the Earth. They are at the right distances from their star for liquid water to exist on the surfaces of several of them. This artist’s impression is based on the known physical parameters for the planets and stars seen, and uses a vast database of objects in the Universe. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/spaceengine.org

Feb. 22, 2017 — Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. Using ground and space telescopes, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. According to the paper appearing today in the journal Nature, three of the planets lie in the habitable zone and could harbor oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water on their surfaces.

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST–South telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world, have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small planets orbiting the cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their parent star, have sizes similar to Earth.

Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it — events known as transits — allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

Lead author Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium is delighted by the findings: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!”

With just eight percent the mass of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 is very small in stellar terms — only marginally bigger than the planet Jupiter — and though nearby in the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier), it appears very dim. Astronomers expected that such dwarf stars might host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but TRAPPIST-1 is the first such system to be found.

Co-author Amaury Triaud expands: “The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1!”

The team determined that all the planets in the system are similar in size to Earth and Venus in the Solar System, or slightly smaller. The density measurements suggest that at least the innermost six are probably rocky in composition.

The planetary orbits are not much larger than that of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and much smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy input to its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our Solar System; TRAPPIST-1c, d and f receive similar amounts of energy to Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others. Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbor liquid water — assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring. TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water.

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team member Emmanuël Jehin is excited about the future possibilities: “With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds.”

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February membership meeting

The monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association will take place Monday night (Feb. 13). Our speaker at 7:30 PM will be NASA research scientist Bryan Palaszewski, who will make a presentation entitled: “NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.” Non-members are welcome!

Our monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks

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Best views yet

This image shows a region in Saturn’s outer B ring. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft viewed this area at a level of detail twice as high as it had ever been observed before. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Newly released images showcase the incredible closeness with which NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, now in its “Ring-Grazing” orbits phase, is observing Saturn’s dazzling rings of icy debris.

The views are some of the closest-ever images of the outer parts of the main rings, giving scientists an eagerly awaited opportunity to observe features with names like “straw” and “propellers.” Although Cassini saw these features earlier in the mission, the spacecraft’s current, special orbits are now providing opportunities to see them in greater detail. The new images resolve details as small as 0.3 miles (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.

Cassini is now about halfway through its penultimate mission phase — 20 orbits that dive past the outer edge of the main ring system. The ring-grazing orbits began last November, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first finale plunge is scheduled for April 26.

For now, the veteran spacecraft is shooting past the outer edges of the rings every week, gathering some of its best images of the rings and moons. Already Cassini has sent back the closest-ever views of small moons Daphnis and Pandora.

Some of the structures seen in recent Cassini images have not been visible at this level of detail since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004. At that time, fine details like straw and propellers — which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively — had never been seen before. (Although propellers were present in Cassini’s arrival images, they were actually discovered in later analysis, the following year.)

Cassini came a bit closer to the rings during its arrival at Saturn, but the quality of those arrival images (examples: 1, 2, 3) was not as high as in the new views. Those precious few observations only looked out on the backlit side of the rings, and the team chose short exposure times to minimize smearing due to Cassini’s fast motion as it vaulted over the ring plane. This resulted in images that were scientifically stunning, but somewhat dark and noisy.

In contrast, the close views Cassini has begun capturing in its ring-grazing orbits (and soon will capture in its Grand Finale phase) are taking in both the backlit and sunlit side of the rings. Instead of just one brief pass lasting a few hours, Cassini is making several dozen passes during these final months.

“As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images — which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years — I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection,” said Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”

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First meeting of 2017

Our first CAA meeting of the New Year is scheduled tomorrow (Monday, Jan. 9) at Rocky River Nature Center. Our speaker, at 7:30 PM, will be Jay Reynolds, CSU astronomy instructor, who will give a presentation about NASA’s missions to Pluto and Ceres. Non-members are welcome to attend! 

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Cassini saves daring maneuvers and observations for last

Cassini ring-grazing orbits. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This graphic shows the closest approaches of Cassini’s final two orbital phases. Ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray (at left); Grand Finale orbits are shown in blue. The orange line shows the spacecraft’s Sept. 2017 final plunge into Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft has made its first close dive past the outer edges of Saturn’s rings since beginning its penultimate mission phase on Nov. 30.

Cassini crossed through the plane of Saturn’s rings on Dec. 4 at 8:09 AM EST at a distance of approximately 57,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) above Saturn’s cloud tops. This is the approximate location of a faint, dusty ring produced by the planet’s small moons Janus and Epimetheus, and just 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) from the center of Saturn’s F ring.

About an hour prior to the ring-plane crossing, the spacecraft performed a short burn of its main engine that lasted about six seconds. About 30 minutes later, as it approached the ring plane, Cassini closed its canopy-like engine cover as a protective measure.

“With this small adjustment to the spacecraft’s trajectory, we’re in excellent shape to make the most of this new phase of the mission,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

A few hours after the ring-plane crossing, Cassini began a complete scan across the rings with its radio science experiment to study their structure in great detail.

“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”

Cassini’s imaging cameras obtained views of Saturn about two days before crossing through the ring plane, but not near the time of closest approach. The focus of this first close pass was the engine maneuver and observations by Cassini’s other science instruments. Future dives past the rings will feature some of the mission’s best views of the outer regions of the rings and small, nearby moons.

Each of Cassini’s orbits for the remainder of the mission will last one week. The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for Dec. 11. The ring-grazing orbits — 20 in all — will continue until April 22, when the last close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will reshape Cassini’s flight path. With that encounter, Cassini will leap over the rings, making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26.

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October Meeting: Relativity & election nominations

by William Murmann, CAA President

Tonight is our monthly CAA meeting Monday night (Oct. 10) — 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center. CAA member Bob Fritz will give a talk at 7:30 entitled “General Relativity: What It Is and Why It Matters.”

After Bob’s presentation and our break we will have our monthly business meeting and the first nominations for election to officer and member-at-large positions. Second nominations and the election will be held at our November 14 meeting.

Under our club bylaws, voting privileges start after six months of membership. Any member in good standing can run for a member-at-large position on the Board. Candidates for the office of president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer shall be limited to members who have been CAA members for at least two years, and who have attended at least half of the membership meetings during the preceding two years, or who are recommended by the Board.

The CAA Board consists of the four executive officers and the three members-at-large.

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Great food, friendship, observing, and prizes at annual convention

Our rescheduled September 24 OTAA Convention was a success with great weather, good food, starry skies, and good times! The event took place at the CAA’s observing site in the Medina County Park System’s Letha House Park West. Many thanks go out to the generous CAA officers and members who worked diligently to make the event happen.

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association would also like to thank the following vendors for their donations raffle prizes for the convention:

Astrozap
P.O. Box 502
Lakewood, OH 44107

Bob’s Knobs
6976 Kempton Rd.
Centerville, IN 47330

Knightware
305 Evans Estates Drive
Cary, North Carolina 27513

Oceanside Photo & Telescope
918 Mission Avenue
Oceanside, CA 92054

Orion Telescopes & Binoculars
89 Hangar Way
Watsonville, CA 95076

Tele Vue Optics, Inc.
32 Elkay Dr.
Chester, NY 10918

Yes, our next OTAA Convention is already scheduled: Saturday, August 19, 2017. See you then?

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