Astronomers Spot Trio of Promising Exoplanets Orbiting Ultra-Cool Dwarf

Not to be superficial, but it’s hard to ignore an exoplanet press release when it comes with artwork that looks like it was ripped from a Michael Whelan paperback cover.

Specifically, we’re looking at Martin Kornmesser’s depiction of an Earth-like planet orbiting the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1—a dim, Jupiter-sized star roughly 40 light years away. Using the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope*, ESO astronomers were able to detect the presence of three planets as they passed between us and TRAPPIST-1’s bloody glow—thus promoting such “red worlds” from the realm of theoretical to confirmed astronomy.

But there’s far more to be excited about beyond the slick artwork. First of all, the cooler, dimmer nature of TRAPPIST-1 makes it possible for scientists to analyze the light passing through each world’s atmosphere as it passes between its sun and the Earth—a process known as transit transmission spectroscopy. Brighter stars overwhelm our current analysis capabilities, but TRAPPIST-1 is just dim enough to permit the search for life on each transiting world. Through the use of current and pending ESO and NASA telescopes, these efforts will entail the search for water and even biological activity.

The researchers, led by astronomer Michaël Gillon, believe these findings open the door for a new era in exoplanet hunting, focusing on other ultra-cool dwarf stars that make up 15 percent of the local galactic neighborhood.

Here’s hoping at least one of those three worlds approaches Pern-levels of Whelan-ness.

* That stands for TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope, so we can sadly dispel the image of silent monks attending to a massive space lens.

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