Tiny Telescope One-Ups Kepler In Discovering Exoplanets

First Posted: May 04, 2016 04:30 AM EDT

It has been the goal of astronomers to find habitable planets in the universe - planets that like earth, can sustain life forms. But the universe is vast, so they strategize: first, by looking for stars similar to our Sun. The Kepler telescope found around 1,041 confirmed exoplanets, which meant that the strategy worked.

There is a crazier way to find habitable planets - by looking for small, faints stars that they're not even sure could have planets. In a weird twist of fate, however, CNN reported that astronomers looking through the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) said that they found three exoplanets orbiting a dwarf star only 40 light years away.

What made this discovery almost improbable is the fact that compared to the Kepler, TRAPPIST is not even noteworthy. It tracks about 60 stars to Kepler's 100,000, points through the haze from the Earth's atmosphere to Kepler's in-space flight, and only has a 60-centimeter lens compared to Kepler's 96 - in most ways, it is far inferior.

Yet, it tracked down exoplanets that Kepler missed. According to Wired, it's because TRAPPIST specifically tracks the dwarf stars that Kepler overlooks. These stars are small and faint, but as it turned out, these characteristics can be advantageous - because of the faint glow of these ultracool dwarf stars, astronomers can easily identify the exoplanets' atmospheres by the way they affect the color of the star, which they are now calling TRAPPIST-1.

Now that the exoplanets are confirmed, the team submitted an application to point telescopes at the dwarf star. Julien de Wit, a post doctorate at MIT said that upon the discovery of the star and its exoplanets, everything has been moving at a crazy pace around him.

The telescope TRAPPIST will soon have a study buddy - another telescope, called TRAPPIST-North, is currently being built in Morocco to survey the northern hemisphere beginning September, and the Hubble Space Telescope will be looking at ultracool dwarf stars as well.

But all these things are just prototype of a more ambitious mission - an observatory to be built in Chile, called Search for Planets Eclipsing Ultra-cool Stars. Or SPECULOOS. No, not the peanut butter.

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