Stargazing Nights

Stargazing Nights

Frosty Drew Observatory
Friday February 24, 2017 at 6:00 p.m.
$1 Suggested Donation per Person

Tonight is Stargazing Night at Frosty Drew Observatory and the sky is setup for a perfect night. Unfortunately, forecasts have different plans. Though variable, we can generally expect mostly cloudy skies with fog moving in overnight. After a charged week of astronomy news and the arrival of the best part of the new Moon cycle, we are reminded that New England skies do not often allow for awesomeness. Tonight’s 1% waning crescent Moon will rise just before 6:00 a.m. and would have offered an entire night of mind blowing views and moments of new found glory. Not this week.

We will open the Observatory and Sky Theatre at 6:00 tonight. In the Observatory, telescopes will start on standby as we evaluate conditions on site. Being that heavy haze, bordering on fog, will be the main issue tonight, we may be able to catch a view of Venus through the slough. If viewing opportunities present themselves, we will open up the telescopes for a peek. In the Sky Theatre, we will show our presentation of celestial objects photographed at Frosty Drew. If skies do not clear we will offer a commentary and open discussion on general astronomy in the Sky Theatre as well.

Overall, variability in tonight’s forecast may allow for a couple views of Venus and possibly other bright objects through the haze, though it will not be the night we hoped for. We usually score when there is variability in the forecast and we have had a many nights these past couple months that were much better than expected. We will post updates to @FrostyDrewOBSY on Twitter and our Facebook on what is happening at the Observatory, which can help you make an informed decision before making the trek out. Regardless, if you’re feeling optimistic or want to chat about the TRAPPIST-1 announcement or the Pluto drama, then swing on over, get your geek on and hope with the best for clear(er) skies.

Weekly Happenings
Scott MacNeill

On Wednesday, February 22nd the discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a red dwarf star that resides 40 light years distant, was announced. Though we frequently hear about Earth-like exoplanet discoveries, this one is the first time we have identified so many Earth-like planets around one star so close to the Solar System. Add in that 3 of these planets reside in the habitable zone, which is where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface, and this discovery is taking the astro-geek world by storm.

The star, whose initial designation was 2MASS J23062928-0502285, is now called TRAPPIST-1. Discovered in 1999 by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS), the star resides at nearly 40 light years distant towards the constellation Aquarius. It is a cool red dwarf star with a spectral classification of M8V. Shining at only 0.05% the brightness of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 has 8% the mass of the Sun with a radius measuring 11% that of the Sun.

During September – December 2015, the TRansiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, observed the star system with the goal of identifying potential exoplanets. Their observations revealed three exoplanets that closely orbit the star. This discovery garnered the name TRAPPIST-1 for the star system. Then in the autumn of 2016, the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, alongside several ground-based telescopes, confirmed the existence of the TRAPPIST discovery and found four additional planets around the red dwarf star, as well as measuring the size of the planets and initial estimates of their masses and densities.

The TRAPPIST-1 planetary system is comprised of seven planets that all reside significantly closer to their parent star than Mercury does to the Sun. The planets have the designation b – h with TRAPPIST-1b having the closest orbit to the star and TRAPPIST-1h having the furthest. Though all planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system have the potential of harboring liquid water on their surfaces, TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g reside in the star’s habitable zone, significantly increasing that possibility. Orbiting so close to their parent star means that all seven planets are likely tidally locked, which is where one side of the planet always faces the star, with the other side in perpetual darkness. Additionally, the close proximity to their parent star gives them super fast orbital periods, with the shortest year occurring on TRAPPIST-1b at 1.51 Earth-days and the longest period occurring on TRAPPIST-1h at around 20 Earth-days. Planetary sizes range from 0.76 Earth-radii (TRAPPIST-1h) to 1.13 Earth-radii (TRAPPIST-1g), with TRAPPIST-1f being the closest in size to Earth with 1.04 Earth-radii. The distance between each planet’s orbital position puts them quite close to each other. This would allow for fantastic naked-eye views of neighboring planets, with some appearing larger than the Moon appears to us in our night sky.

All of this awesomeness inevitably raises the question of the potential for life in this rather crowded planetary system. Being that substantially further observation and study of the system needs to happen before we can even begin to answer that question, there are some initial hints of the possibility. From what we can tell at this point, all planetary components are likely rocky planets (not gaseous like Jupiter) with a similar composition to Earth. Depending on atmospheric conditions (if atmospheres are even present), strong winds could balance out temperatures on the tidally locked worlds. TRAPPIST-1 being a red dwarf star has been identified as producing sufficient x-ray emissions and intense ultra-violet radiation to alter the primary and secondary atmospheres of the habitable zone planets. Though speculation is exhilarating, the real discoveries in this area will start coming in after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is launched in October 2018, giving us the ability to detect chemical signatures of atmospheric elements and possible signs of life.

All the hype aside, this is yet another fantastic discover and staggering example of how far we have come with our understanding of sciences and engineering. Further observations with Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler are being scheduled and will set the stage for follow-ups with the James Webb Space Telescope. The detection of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, alongside the growing number of Earth-like exoplanet discoveries in our galactic neighborhood, further substantiates the idea that the universe is teeming with worlds where life can start and possibly thrive, just as it has on Earth.