New telescope is an exoplanet TRAPPIST

By Phil Plait | June 8, 2010 10:17 am

The European Southern Observatory has unveiled a new planet-hunter: TRAPPIST: TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. I know, I know, but we’re running out of acronyms here, folks. If it makes you feel better, it was named after a beer.

It sits in the high and dry Atacama desert in Chile, rapidly and autonomously scanning the sky, looking at millions of stars and recording their brightnesses. It does this over and again, looking for the tell-tale dip in starlight caused when a planet passes in front of its parent star.

In the meantime, it also takes incredible pictures of the sky:


That’s the Tarantula Nebula, a sprawling complex of gas and dust churning out stars at an incredible rate. To give you an idea of how luminous it is, at 180,000 light years away (that’s 1.8 quintillion kilometers, or more than a quintillion miles!) it’s still visible to the naked eye (if you live in the southern hemisphere, that is). TRAPPIST’s primary mission is to look for transiting planets as well as comets visible in the southern skies, but like any good telescope pointing up it’s capable of all sorts of good science — if, for example, there are any changes in the Tarantula (a star explodes, or flares up) TRAPPIST will catch it.

eso_trappistThis is all pretty amazing considering the telescope is only 60 cm (20 inches) in diameter! Because the transit method looks for dips in a star’s brightness, it’s best to look at bright stars; they give off so much light that even a small dip is easier to see. You don’t need a honking big ‘scope to look at bright stars, and in fact something smaller is even better: it can see larger areas of sky at once, and won’t overexpose the detector like a bigger ‘scope might do when it floods the camera with starlight.

Small telescopes are less expensive and easier to design, too; TRAPPIST went from being just an idea to getting its first images in only two years. And it’s fully robotic! It does its thing on its own, preprogrammed to sweep the heavens and send the data to astronomers without them ever having to actually be at the dome.

Other such smaller-scale projects are popping up all over the planet, and I think that’s terrific. You don’t always need a huge expensive piece of equipment to do solid science, and, amazingly, even a telescope no bigger than one you can keep in your garage can actually be used to discover planets orbiting other stars!

Related posts:

Kepler works!
Wrong way planets screw up our perfectly good theories
Smallest exoplanet yet found
Super-Neptune caught by small telescopes

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (34)

  1. StevoR

    If it makes you feel better, it was named after a beer.

    Yes, yes, it does. 😉

    Awesome photo – love it. :-)

    To give you an idea of how luminous it is, at 180,000 light years away (that’s 1.8 quintillion kilometers, or more than a quintillion miles!)

    So … how many zeroes is that?

    And is it fair to say the Tarantula nebula is the core of the Large Magellanic Cloud?

    – StevoR aka Messier Tidy Upper (& if you think I can’t decide what to call myself & stick to it here you’d be absolutely right! 😉 )

    PS. Exoplanets and what we can discover about them still make my jaw drop. Every time. 8)

  2. This one those posts that I have mixed feelings. One side says cool, more exoplanets. The other side really wants to rethink the idea of still following astronomy because I makes me feel bad that I am not doing it myself.

  3. dWhisper

    I feel a near insatiable urge to complain about how you should cover less astronomy and stick to covering politics and religion…

    How does the scope deal with the margin of error that would be introduced by the atmosphere? And doesn’t the brighter the star, past a certain distance, mean a more massive star? Based on other things I’ve read, those stars are less likely to have planets…

  4. Ala'a

    Superb! Small telescopes are still capable instruments ready for science :-)

    But …

    60 cm is equivalent to about 24″ 😉

  5. @dWhisper
    How does the scope deal with the margin of error that would be introduced by the atmosphere?

    It has something to do with “adaptive optics” and shooting laser beams up into the atmosphere. Not sure of the details though sorry.

  6. jim moore

    The Trappist are monks.
    Monks famous for making beer, but monks none the less.

  7. 6. jim moore

    Phil links above to the TRAPPIST website where they explain the origin of the name. The first paragraph is
    The name TRAPPIST was given to the telescope to underline the Belgian origin of the project. Indeed, Trappist beers are famous all around the world and most of them are Belgian. Moreover, the team members really appreciate them!

    It then goes on to discuss the religious order. It’s obvious they’ve named it after the beer. Indeed as soon as I saw TRAPPIST I thought of Chimay… mmm… Chimay.

  8. I was going to make the same objection as jim more in comment #6 does, but as Phil’s link clearly say, the people responsible for the project named it after the various Trappist type beers. They’re in turn named after the monks who brew them, but naming-afters aren’t transitive.

  9. Leigh

    It’s all about the Rochefort!

  10. Kris

    I find it hilarious that the linked article spends three paragraphs describing a religious order of the same name as the telescope (said order having a link to beer production), and the author claims that the telescope is actually named after a beer. Go figure.

  11. NewEnglandBob

    So how did they get that Samurai warrior to pose right in the middle of the photograph, with his sword on his belt???

  12. The Trappist Monks in Québec make a fabulous Blueberry Chocolate delicacy. They’re famous all over Québec province for their chocolate.

  13. Geri Monsen

    180,000 lightyears? How did the nebula get knocked out of the Milky Way galaxy?

  14. Robin S

    @ Al’a (4): Yes, small optics can do incredible things. A professor I worked with found that with an off the shelf camera lens (If remember correctly, ~300mm lens) an object the size of a dinner plate (12″…..30 cm), in a 400 mile orbit around the Earth could be detected as it transited across the Sun. You wouldn’t know what the object was, but you could tell it was there.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That is freaking awesome, the core instrument is _smaller than a human_!


    it was named after a beer

    No. no, no; sacrilege!

    Trappist beer is a beer type [click to embeerinate].

    That is like calling champagnes “a wine”.

  16. MattF

    @StevoR: A quintillion is a one followed by 18 zeroes.

  17. Eddie Janssen

    Westmalle Double and La Trappe Quadruple are the best! But stop after 2 or 3. Otherwise things might go wrong…

  18. JR

    Friedman said. “Being wrong is something that scientists don’t like to admit at all.”

    Who else saw this garbage today?

  19. JohnDoe

    Not only is the telescope itself “small” they’re also using a camera that cost just $40 when new – a Philips ToUCam USB Webcam, as can be seen on the back of the telescope in their PR photo. While that’s probably just for testing, I’m still surprised to see it:

  20. Komojo

    This is going to end up like V-GER in the Star Trek movie, only the T and P will be missing from TRAPPIST.

    (But seriously, planet-hunting telescopes are awesome.)

  21. Uhmmm, does anyone else think the nebula looks like an evil overlord’s skeleton face. I think we should call over some of the folks from the 10 commandments post to review this for possible evil overtones.

    Sorry…. this is what happens when a overly imaginative, non-science girl hangs out at a science blog…Resume your technical science talk.

  22. jim moore

    Shane and Bjornar,
    I did not click the link because I “knew” who the Trappist are. (my fault)
    Now when we get the BEER Telescope I won’t click the link because I will “know” that it is named after Charles Beer discoverer of Beer’s Law 😉

  23. Jon Hanford

    #19 JohnDoe,

    Their website IDs the camera as a FLI ProLine PL3041-BB ( ).

    That’s gotta be a test camera in the ESO picture.

  24. #13 Geri:
    The Tarantula Nebula isn’t in the Milky Way Galaxy. It’s in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our Galaxy’s small satellite galaxies. The distance of 180000 l.y. is correct.

  25. TGAP Dad

    I totally fell in love with trappist ales abuot 15 years ago, especially the wonderful LaTrappe. If you can find it (it’s worth the search) try the Dubbel or Quadrupel.

  26. TiredEyes

    Holy P… whatever, Badman! Look just below the large bright white area at the center of the nebula – – – you can clearly see the Virgin Mary!
    Er … does this mean she endorses Trappist beers?

  27. Phil E. Drifter

    What good is finding exoplanets in a system that’s 180,000 light years from earth? Yes, we know there are extra-solar planets out there; I think the next logical step would be to find ones relatively *near* earth so that future generations can inhabit them, because this planet is only gonna last us so long.

  28. jcm

    Mmmmmmm! Beer! [drooling]

    Now, pareidolia/apophenia alert with the image of the Tarantula Nebula.

  29. StevoR

    @16. MattF Says:

    @StevoR: A quintillion is a one followed by 18 zeroes.

    Thanks. :-)

    So that’s 1,0oo,000,000,000,000,000. Wow.

    @27. Phil E. Drifter Says:

    What good is finding exoplanets in a system that’s 180,000 light years from Earth?

    As a famous physicist whose name I have forgotten (Enrico Fermi maybe?) once said :

    “What good is a new born baby?”

    This is new knowledge and it is interesting and we now know from it that exoplanets can form in other galaxies such as the Large Magellanic Cloud which has a number of implications and is a jumping off point for more research. That is something isn’t it? :-)

    – StevoR aka Messier Tidy Upper

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    @22. jim moore Says:

    Now when we get the BEER Telescope I won’t click the link because I will “know” that it is named after Charles Beer discoverer of Beer’s Law.

    There used to be a Beer Sea on Mars – named by early astronomy popular science writer Richard Proctor on an early Martian map published in 1867.

    (Source : ‘Mapping Mars’, Oliver Morton, Fourth Estate, 2003.)

    Plus there’s a Beer crater on Mars even today :

    Additionally, there is also a Beer crater located on the Moon too :

    In case anyone was curious. :-)

    Mmmm … Beer Sea! Now there’s a place this Aussie wishes was still on the Martian map and here’s hoping beer crater becomes a future Martian Beer city – or Martian brewery site anyhow! 😉

    – Messier Tidy Upper aka StevoR.

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Both craters (& the erstwhile Beer sea) are named after Jewish German astronomer Wilhem Beer who was one of the first people to make maps of Mars :

    There’s also an asteroid beer Beer (1896) named in his honour as well. 😉

    So, historically, we’ve had Comet Wine ( ) and we’ve asteroid Beer. Hmm … the sky is awash in beverages! 😉

  32. Bob_In_Wales

    @26 – Naah. I see your figure, but it’s definitely Jesus. And he probably does endorse the beer given his first miracle was turning water into wine. The man wasn’t all bad, though some nice warm English Ale would have been even better.

  33. As a Belgian, I think naming a telescope TRAPPIST is totally badass. Would you have preferred MANNEKEN PIS, ATOMIUM or FRITE?
    Nah, TRAPPIST is fine. The only thing is it doesn’t have the Authentic Trappist Product label.
    Damn, I want a Westvleteren now.

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ Inti : I’d have preferred Coopers myself! 😉


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