Quantcast
Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 14:04 EDT

TRAPPIST To Scout For Exoplanets And Comets

June 8, 2010

A new robotic telescope has had first light at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, in Chile. TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterization of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets) and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm telescope is operated from a control room in Lige, Belgium, 12 000 km away.

“The two themes of the TRAPPIST project are important parts of an emerging interdisciplinary field of research “” astrobiology “” that aims at studying the origin and distribution of life in the Universe,” explains Michaël Gillon, who is in charge of the exoplanet studies.

“Terrestrial planets similar to our Earth are obvious targets for the search for life outside the Solar System, while comets are suspected to have played an important role in the appearance and development of life on our planet,” adds his colleague Emmanuël Jehin, who leads the cometary part of the project.

TRAPPIST will detect and characterize exoplanets by making high precision measurements of “brightness dips” that might possibly be caused by exoplanet transits. During such a transit, the observed brightness of the star decreases slightly because the planet blocks a part of the starlight. The larger the planet, the more of the light is blocked and the more the brightness of the star will decrease [1].

“ESO’s La Silla Observatory on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert is certainly one of the best astronomical sites in the world,” says Gillon. “And because it is already home to two superb exoplanet hunters, we couldn’t have found a better place to install our robotic telescope.”

The astronomers behind the TRAPPIST initiative will work very closely with the teams using HARPS on the 3.6-meter telescope and CORALIE attached to the Swiss 1.2-meter Leonhard Euler Telescope, both at La Silla. TRAPPIST is a collaboration between the University of Lige and the Geneva Observatory, Switzerland. The telescope is installed in the building that housed the old Swiss T70 telescope. Thanks to this collaboration, the whole project is on a fast track: it took only two years between taking the decision to build and first light.

TRAPPIST will also be used for the study of southern comets. To this aim, the telescope is equipped with special large, high quality cometary filters, allowing astronomers to study regularly and in detail the ejection of several types of molecules by comets during their journey around the Sun.

“With dozens of comets observed each year, this will provide us with a unique dataset, bringing important information about their nature,” says Jehin.

TRAPPIST is a lightweight 0.6-meter robotic telescope, fully automated and moving precisely across the sky at a high speed. The observing program is prepared in advance and the telescope can perform a full night of observations unattended. A meteorological station monitors the weather continuously and decides to close the dome if necessary.

Notes

[1] A planetary transit occurs when a celestial body passes in front of its host star and blocks some of the star’s light. This type of eclipse causes changes in the apparent brightness of the star and enables the planet’s diameter to be measured. Combined with radial velocity measurements, it is also possible to deduce the mass and, hence, the density of the planet.

More information

TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a project led by the Department of Astrophysics, Geophysics and Oceanography (AGO) of the University of Lige (Belgium), in close collaboration with the Observatory of Geneva (Switzerland). TRAPPIST is mostly funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) with the participation of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF).

The team is composed of Emmanuël Jehin, Michaël Gillon, Pierre Magain, Virginie Chantry, Jean Manfroid, and Damien Hutsem©kers (University of Lige, Belgium) and Didier Queloz and St©phane Udry (Observatory of Geneva, Switzerland).

The name TRAPPIST was given to the telescope to underline the Belgian origin of the project. Trappist beers are famous all around the world and most of them are Belgian. Moreover, the team members really appreciate them!

Image 1: This first light image of the TRAPPIST national telescope at La Silla shows the Tarantula Nebula, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) “” one of the galaxies closest to us. Also known as 30 Doradus or NGC 2070, the nebula owes its name to the arrangement of bright patches that somewhat resembles the legs of a tarantula. Taking the name of one of the biggest spiders on Earth is very fitting in view of the gigantic proportions of this celestial nebula “” it measures nearly 1000 light-years across! Its proximity, the favorable inclination of the LMC, and the absence of intervening dust make this nebula one of the best laboratories to help understand the formation of massive stars better. The image was made from data obtained through three filters (B, V and R) and the field of view is about 20 arcminutes across. Credit: TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO

Image 2: A new robotic telescope had first light at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, in Chile, in June 2010. TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterization of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets) and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm national telescope is operated from a control room in Lige, Belgium, 12 000 km away. Credit: E. Jehin/ESO

Image 3: The globular cluster Omega Centauri was one of the targets observed for first light of the TRAPPIST national telescope at La Silla. The cluster contains as many as ten million stars. This image, 20 arcminutes across, shows only the central parts of Omega Centauri. It is made by combining data obtained through three filters (B, V and R). TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterization of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets) and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm national telescope is operated from a control room in Lige, Belgium, 12 000 km away. Credit: TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO

Image 4: One of the TRAPPIST first light images shows the spiral galaxy Messier 83. Messier 83 lies roughly 15 million light-years away in the huge southern constellation of Hydra (the Sea Serpent). It stretches across 40 000 light-years, making it roughly 2.5 times smaller than our own Milky Way. However, in some respects, Messier 83 is quite similar to our own galaxy. Both the Milky Way and Messier 83 have a bar across their galactic nucleus, the dense spherical conglomeration of stars seen at the center of the galaxies. TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterization of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets) and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm national telescope is operated from a control room in Lige, Belgium, 12 000 km away. The image was made from data obtained through three filters (B, V and R) and the field of view is about 20 arcminutes across. Credit: TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO

On the Net:

Exoplanet Press Kit (pdf)


TRAPPIST To Scout For Exoplanets And Comets TRAPPIST To Scout For Exoplanets And Comets TRAPPIST To Scout For Exoplanets And Comets