News from The TRAPPIST

Hi, folks. It’s late, and, wow, it’s only Tuesday, but I wanted to mention this really great story, which has been on my mind the last couple of days. Earlier this week it was announced that the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST — it’s the Chimay of telescopes) telescope, a small, Belgian-operated, robotic telescope sitting high in the mountains near the Chilean Atacama desert (anyone else want to grab their passport and meet me at the airport?) has found three Earth-sized planets orbiting a brown dwarf right down the street, galactically speaking, only 40 light years away.  Brown dwarfs like this one are objects that are too big to be considered planets, but not big enough for the nuclear fusion reactions that make stars stars to start. They put out some, but not a lot of light relative to other, more massive, stars.

The Kepler observatory, which has been been looking at the sky from its vantage millions of miles away, has done an incredible job of finding possible planets for years. These observatories use the transit method for detecting planets. This means they search the sky looking at stars. When a star system is oriented just right — roughly edge-on as seen from here on Earth — the light from some stars occasionally and periodically dips. This is often a sign of a planet passing between the star and the observing telescope back here. The passing planet briefly blocks a small, but noticeable amount of the star’s light from reaching Earth; a tiny, distant eclipse.

This news from TRAPPIST is amazing because it’s a small, ground-based scope, not the big king that is Kepler seeing these transits. I love these underdog stories, when great things can come from small, unlikely places. Even now, I’m still inspired by them. What will we find next? Where will we go?

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