Artist’s illustration of a view from the surface of one of the TRAPPIST-1 worlds.
Hey there, little star.
A new set of images taken by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope shows a faint, pixelated view of TRAPPIST-1, a small, dim star 40 light-years from Earth that plays host to at least seven Earth-sized worlds.
While the GIF showing the star’s brightness isn’t much to look at, it’s worth its weight in scientific gold. It’s also the public’s first real look at the exciting star system, which could be orbited by at least one habitable planet.
By carefully analyzing how the light of the star changes from one photo to the next, scientists can detect planets passing in front of the star from Kepler’s perspective. The small dips in light caused by a transit allow researchers to characterize the planets orbiting the star, and learn more about the worlds’ masses, sizes and orbits.
"An Earth-size planet passing in front of a small ultra-cool dwarf star like TRAPPIST-1 creates less than a one percent dip in brightness, and is not visible with the naked eye," NASA said in a statement.
The flickering of the pixels in the new animation aren’t actually dips in the brightness of the star, according to NASA. Instead, those variations in light are caused by algorithms correcting for Kepler’s movements in space. (Basically, whenever scientists use data from telescopes in space, they need to correct for whatever movements the telescope is making in order to parse out signal from noise.)
This animation — which shows the photos taken once each minute for about an hour on Feb. 22 — is just a small sampling of months of data collected by Kepler as it stared at TRAPPIST-1.
The space telescope took photos of the star system for 74 days from Dec. 15, 2016 through March 4.
The system is the first found with seven Earth-sized planets that might have a chance to support life.
At least a few of the worlds are thought to be in orbits that would allow them to support liquid water on their surfaces.
By and large, scientists want to study these worlds because they do qualify as some of the best possible places to search for alien life. Eventually, when more high-powered instruments launch to space in the coming years, researchers should be able to learn more about the planets’ atmospheres and whether they’re habitable.
We need that data too, because at the moment, it’s unclear exactly what kind of environment these planets are facing.
TRAPPIST-1 is much smaller and dimmer than our sun, so actually pinpointing the habitable area of its orbit is difficult to do. Therefore, learning all we can about this star now could help us track its planets in the future.