NASA’s Kepler provides new data on TRAPPIST-1
Last month, researchers announced that TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star approximately 40 light-years from Earth, hosts seven planets that are probably rocky, including three in the habitable zone. The discovery was made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in combination with ground-based telescopes. TRAPPIST-1 has also been under observation by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope since December 2016. On Wednesday, March 8, NASA released new data from Kepler’s investigations of the dwarf star to the scientific community.
The Kepler spacecraft, now operating as the K2 mission, collected data on the star’s small changes in brightness due to transiting planets during the period between December 15, 2016, and March 4, 2017. These new observations are expected to help scientists to refine previous measurements of six of the planets, pin down the orbital period and mass of TRAPPIST-h – the seventh and farthest planet – and learn more about the host star’s magnetic activity.
“Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds,” said Geert Barentsen, the K2 research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans. We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.”
The raw, uncalibrated data that was recently released will help scientists in preparing proposals due this month to use Earth-based telescopes this winter to further study TRAPPIST-1. The fully processed and calibrated will be available in the public archive by late May.
The observation period, known as K2 Campaign 12, provided 73 days of monitoring – the longest, nearly continuous set of observations of TRAPPIST-1 ever collected. Campaign 12 will provide scientists with an opportunity to further investigate gravitational interactions between the seven planets and to search for possible undiscovered planets in the system.
Observations of TRAPPIST-1 weren’t always planned for Campaign 12. The initial coordinates of the patch of sky to be observed during Campaign 12 were set during October 2015 before the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 were known to exist.
When the discovery of three of TRAPPIST-1’s planets was announced in May 2016, teams at NASA and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. reworked the calculations and rewrote and tested commands that would be programmed into the spacecraft’s operating system to make a slight pointing adjustment for Campaign 12. By October 2016, Kepler was ready to observe TRAPPIST-1.
“We were lucky that the K2 mission was able to observe TRAPPIST-1,” said Michael Haas, science office director for the Kepler and K2 missions at Ames. “The observing field for Campaign 12 was set when the discovery of the first planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 was announced, and the science community had already submitted proposals for specific targets of interest in that field. The unexpected opportunity to further study the TRAPPIST-1 system was quickly recognized and the agility of the K2 team and science community prevailed once again.”
The additional refinements to the previous measurement of the known planets and any additional planets discovered in the K2 data will aid scientists in planning follow-up studies of TRAPPIST-1’s planets by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.