Here’s Our First View of TRAPPIST-1, the Alien Solar System With Earth-Sized Planets

Super pixellated, but still amazing.
March 9, 2017, 8:20pm

See that black and white blob? That amorphous arrangement of pixels? That's the newly discovered TRAPPIST-1 system, current darling of exoplanetary enthusiasts and alien-life optimists. As announced last week, scientists identified seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the star, which appear to be rocky and temperate. That means some might be able to support liquid water, and potentially life.

This cosmic sonogram is the public's first view of the system as seen by the Kepler space telescope, out of data that was released this week. It's not just another representation of the system: "You absolutely are looking at a picture from a camera," Jessie Dotson, K2 Project Scientist, told me in a phone interview. "Kepler is essentially a really huge camera… but we don't downlink all of that data. We just downlink the pixels, the part of the sky around the stars we're interested in." It's an indirect picture of "shadows" of the planets, but a picture nonetheless.

First view of TRAPPIST-1 star system

The gif is so, well, blobby, because it takes up such a tiny part of Kepler's 95 megapixel camera: just 11 by 11 pixels. "Imagine zooming into an image taken on your phone and only looking at 11x11 pixels," Ethan Kruse, astronomer and graduate student at University of Washington explained via email.

Using Kepler's Target Pixel Files (TPF) data and the K2flix data conversion tool, citizen scientists can see the Trappist-1 planetary system from the point of view of the Kepler telescope's camera. Vetted, calibrated data from K2 Campaign 12 will come available in late May. Meanwhile, the raw, uncalibrated data lets citizen scientists get their hands on the science right away. Kruse wrote his own Kepler data visualization to make a gif out of the images:

"We get a whole lot of information out of what looks like some funky twinkling boxes," Dotson said. What you're watching is the transit of planets between Kepler's gaze and the Trappist-1 star: As the planets pass by, they dim the brightness of the pixels by between half a percent or 8/10ths of a percent. From those tiny changes, astronomers are able to tell how large each planet is, how many there are, how fast they orbit and each of their distances from their sun.

"From there… we can start to narrow down the range of possibilities of what the surface of those planets might be like," Dotson said. Out of this gray speck, we get sprawling landscapes on alien worlds. Of this concept art, Dotson noted: "That isn't the only way these planets could look, but it's a very plausible way these planets could look."

Squint hard, let your imagination take a 39 light year trip, and you can almost see it.

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