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Image: Artist's impression of star system. 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

 

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.”

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope image of distant galaxy cluster and gravitational lensing. Credit: NASA/ESA

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster MACSJ0717.5+3745. This is one of six being studied by the Hubble Frontier Fields programme, which together have produced the deepest images of gravitational lensing ever made. Due to the huge mass of the cluster it is bending the light of background objects, acting as a magnifying lens. It is one of the most massive galaxy clusters known, and it is also the largest known gravitational lens. Of all of the galaxy clusters known and measured, MACS J0717 lenses the largest area of the sky.

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the Universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the Big Bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined, for the first time with some confidence, that these small galaxies were vital to creating the Universe that we see today.

An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600 to 900 million years after the Big Bang — one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young.

Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out, “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.”

By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the Universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early Universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and the Universe became transparent to ultraviolet light.

By observing the ultraviolet light from the galaxies found in this study the astronomers were able to calculate whether these were in fact some of the galaxies involved in the process. The team determined, for the first time with some confidence, that the smallest and most abundant of the galaxies in the study could be the major actors in keeping the Universe transparent. By doing so, they have established that the epoch of reionization — which ends at the point when the Universe is fully transparent — came to a close about 700 million years after the Big Bang.

Lead author Atek explained, “If we took into account only the contributions from bright and massive galaxies, we found that these were insufficient to reionize the Universe. We also needed to add in the contribution of a more abundant population of faint dwarf galaxies.”

To make these discoveries, the team utilized the deepest images of gravitational lensing made so far in three galaxy clusters, which were taken as part of the Hubble Frontier Fields program. These clusters generate immense gravitational fields capable of magnifying the light from the faint galaxies that lie far behind the clusters themselves. This makes it possible to search for, and study, the first generation of galaxies in the Universe.

Jean-Paul Kneib, co-author of the study from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, explains, “Clusters in the Frontier Fields act as powerful natural telescopes and unveil these faint dwarf galaxies that would otherwise be invisible.”

Co-author of the study Mathilde Jauzac, from Durham University, UK, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarks on the significance of the discovery and Hubble’s role in it,“Hubble remains unrivaled in its ability to observe the most distant galaxies. The sheer depth of the Hubble Frontier Field data guarantees a very precise understanding of the cluster magnification effect, allowing us to make discoveries like these.”