The big news of NASA’s discovery of a system of seven Earth-like exoplanets had most of the internet ready to sign up for a trip off this rock.
We don’t blame you. After all, the system is a “relatively close” 40 light years (235 trillion miles) away. The names seem made to pull you into its orbit. The planets make up a system called Trappist-1. The star is an ultra-cool dwarf. Plus, the space agency’s rollout was accompanied with a marketing campaign that screams, “Get me to a new habitable zone.”
But we are a bit more tied to Earthly concerns. At this ultra-terrestrial hyperlocal tech news site, we must ask one question: “How is Baltimore involved?”
So here’s the deal: The discovery of the seven planets was made primarily by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) and confirmed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. But it’s a big operation that pulled in lots of telescopes, including the Hubble.
Luckily, we have the science operations center for the Hubble right over near Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Campus. That’s the home base for the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).
In studying two of the exoplanets, the Hubble team already made a key observation that these planets did not have puffy, gaseous atmospheres. Now they will be looking deeper, and the study will continue when STScI transitions to the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope. STScI astronomer Nikole Lewis was at NASA’s press conference on Wednesday, and said she is looking forward to studying the atmospheres of the other planets.
The discovery “provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” she said.
And there may be more discoveries to come.