Trappist-1, a nearby star that could host up to seven Earth-like planets, conjures up visions of a space-faring society out of science fiction. The images of Trappist-1 that scientists actually deal with are more reminiscent of Pong.
When scientists and NASA announced the discovery of Trappist-1 last month, it came with the unusual addendum that raw observations of the star by the Kepler Space Telescope would be made available to the public as soon as they make it back to Earth. That first download of data from Kepler came in last week.
The raw data is pretty much meaningless and indiscernible to a layperson. But using a tool from NASA to process some of it, we now have our first GIF of Trappist-1:
Told you. It's not exactly mind-blowing, but it's a start.
The image is 11 x 11 pixels, and it covers almost three months worth of observations by Kepler spanning Dec. 15, 2016 to March 4, 2017. The pixels look a little shifty, but that's not an alien cloaking device. It's actually some of the planets in the system passing in front of the star, which is how we know they're there in the first place.
Before you get too disappointed with this Atari-esque bit of astronomy, keep in mind that Kepler is a space telescope that it is quite literally on its last legs. In coming years, the next generation of advanced telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope will be deployed. They'll provide a much better look at Trappist-1 and its planets.
We may not see anything so extrodinary as those fanciful artists' renderings of the Trappist-1 system in our lifetime, but within just a year or two we could have much more detailed information on those worlds. And if we're really lucky, perhaps some hints of yet-to-be-detected inhabitants.
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