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Astronomers Find Seven "Earth-Like" Planets Orbiting a Cool Star

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An artist's conception of what it might be like to stand on the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

 
Astronomers say they’ve discovered seven Earth-sized planets in tight orbit around a cool, dim star about 39 light-years from us—and all seven are located in the habitable zone that could potentially host life. This is the first time a planetary system oriented to this kind of star has been detected—and its discovery holds the potential to lead us to a lot more exoplanets. An international team of researchers reported their findings in a letter published today in the journal Nature.

“It’s the first time we have seven planets in this temperate zone … that can be called terrestrial,” lead author Michaël Gillon, of Belgium’s Université de Liège, said in a press briefing. “So many is really, really surprising.”

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star that’s 1/80th the brightness of the Sun and similar in size to Jupiter. All seven planets in its system are within 20 percent of the size and mass of Earth, and their density measurements indicate they’re likely of rocky composition. They’re clutched by TRAPPIST-1 in tight orbits—all would fit well within the orbit of Mercury. But unlike in our solar system, where such closeness to a hot star renders life impossible, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, with its cool celestial heart, could potentially host liquid water and organic molecules.

The first three planets were spotted in early 2016 by some of the same researchers involved in the current findings, including Gillon. As the planets cross in front of the star during their orbits, they cause the star, which emits light in the infrared, to briefly dim. Such transits, or eclipses, provide a common way for astronomers to detect exoplanets.

Using telescopes in Chile, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and Morocco, the researchers followed up on these transit signals multiple times in 2016, most notably in late September with a 20-day, nearly continuous monitoring of the star using the Spitzer Space Telescope, currently located about 145 million miles from us in an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun. By moving our view off the Earth, researchers were able to detect 34 separate transits. This turned out to be the result of seven planets—six in near-resonant orbit—crossing in front of their home star. (The transit of the seventh was detected only once, so the orbit of this planet, known as TRAPPIST-h, hasn’t been determined yet.)

The planets have relatively narrow surface temperature fluctuations—about 100 degrees—despite their proximity to their home star. (Compare that to Mercury, which has temperature variations of nearly 1200°F.) The researchers write that three of the planets—E, F, and G—“could harbor water oceans on their surfaces, assuming Earth-like atmospheres.”

They’re probably tidally locked, meaning the same hemisphere of each planet always faces the star. Because they’re so close to each other, they can influence each other’s movements, causing eccentric orbits. The result is a planetary system that looks more like Jupiter and its Galilean moons than our own solar system. The planets likely formed outside the system and were pulled into it, and it’s entirely possible the seven so far identified are not alone.

Top row: Artist conceptions of the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii, and masses as compared to those of Earth. Bottom row: Data about Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“It’s an exciting discovery," University of Montreal astrophysicist Lauren Weiss tells mental_floss. "The TRAPPIST-1 system demonstrates that even the smallest stars in our galaxy can form a multitude of planets.”

Weiss, who was not involved in the current study, researches exoplanetary systems—their masses, density, composition, and orbital dynamics. “These planets are all of sizes that are consistent with rocky compositions," she says of the TRAPPIST-1 system. "In addition, the mass measurements the authors have conducted are consistent with rocky compositions for the planets.”

Most planet-hunting efforts have been focused on brighter stars and bigger planets—and these efforts have been fruitful. Consider NASA’s Kepler mission: As of today, astronomers using the space telescope have detected 2330 exoplanets.

But the TRAPPIST-1 discovery suggests that we shouldn’t overlook the potential that even cool, dim stars have to lead us to new planets. About 15 percent of stars in our neighborhood are ultracool dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. Moreover, M dwarf stars like this one are by far the most abundant in the galaxy, says astronomer Jackie Faherty, senior scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, who studies them.

“When I heard that the number of planets around TRAPPIST-1 had increased from three to seven, I was taken aback,” Faherty tells mental_floss. “The thought that the galaxy must be bursting at the seams with planets immediately sprung into my head.”

What makes them especially appealing is that, because they are dim and small, a relatively substantial amount of light is blocked when a near object—like a planet in a close orbit—crosses in front of one. That makes planetary transits easier to spot.

What does this discovery suggest about the number of Earth-like planets in the galaxy? “There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy, so do the count. You multiply by 10, and you have the number of Earth-size planets in the galaxy—which is a lot,” study co-author Emmanuël Jehin, of the Université de Liège, said in the press briefing.

And as for finding life on one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets? Gillon said that, short of traveling to one and collecting a sample, we can’t say for certain whether life exists on any of them, but the presence of certain molecules in combination with one another will be a likely indicator. “If you have methane, oxygen or ozone, and CO2, you have a strong indication of life and biological activity,” he said in the press briefing. The combination is key—the presence of any one of these on its own isn’t enough to indicate biological life, Gillon noted.

According to Gillon, the James Webb Space Telescope—an infrared telescope slated for launch in October 2018—will greatly help in this effort. “Methane and, for instance, water could be detected with the James Webb telescope, and give us a very good insight on the atmospheric properties of the planet,” he said.

Of course, other scientists are continuing their own search for exoplanets. One high-profile initiative coming soon is NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will study more than 200,000 of the brightest stars for two years in hopes of discovering thousands of exoplanets. It is slated to launch in early to mid 2018.

TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart tells mental_floss that the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system "actually dovetails very nicely with what TESS is expected to discover. At present, there are only a handful of known exoplanets that are suitable for more detailed study. By focusing on finding planets around bright, nearby stars, we hope that TESS will find some 'siblings' for Trappist-1—other systems nearby with multiple planets in the habitable zone of their host star."

But it's not just identifying more exoplanets that's important—it's closer study of individual planets that we need. Rinehart points out that while planets located in the "habitable zone" sound promising, we don't yet know if even one of them can host life. "We know that there are a lot of small, rocky planets in the habitable zones of their host stars, but look at our own solar system," he says. "Venus, Earth, and Mars are all in (or very nearly in) the habitable zone, all three are small, rocky planets, but the three are completely different! So, if we find an exoplanet that is about the same size and mass as Earth, and that planet is in the habitable zone of its host star, we know that it has the potential to be habitable, but we can’t know that it is habitable without more careful study."

The TRAPPIST-1 researchers are going to continue their own search with the project SPECULOOS (Search for Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars).

“We’ve taken a crucial step of finding life out there,” said co-author Amaury Triaud, of the University of Cambridge. “Here if life managed to thrive and release gases similar to those we have on Earth, we will know. We have the right target.”

Editor's note: This post has been updated with additional commentary from TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
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Space
Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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