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Amaury Triaud re discovery of seven planets seen here at the Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Rd, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Amaury Triaud re discovery of seven planets seen here at the Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Rd, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Astronomer convinced life in space will be found during his career

A Cambridge astronomer has predicted that life in space will be discovered within decades after helping to find seven potentially habitable, Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star.

Dr Amaury Triaud, from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, is part of an international team which made the discovery using ground and space telescopes.

They identified the compact system of planets as they passed in front of a low-mass, cool star named Trappist-1, some 40 light years from Earth. The star is around eight per cent of the mass of the sun.

The astronomers identified the planets thanks to periodic drops in the brightness of the central star.

As the planets passed in front of the star, they cast a shadow, events known as transits, from which the team could measure the planets’ orbital periods and calculate their sizes and masses.

Dr Triaud, born in France, co-authored a paper on the find in Nature magazine and, after a lifelong passion, is excited by the latest finds.

He said: “I have found many planets, in excess of 100, but most of them were the size of Jupiter orbiting stars like the sun.

“Most people do not like observing stars, even in my community of planet hunters. I fail to understand why. Here, it helped us with the star being small – it helped us to find small planets.

“By considering and looking at these smaller stars, we detected Earth-sized planets.

“It has been a lifelong passion for me ever since I was at secondary school in France. Astronomy became an interesting project for a friend and I. I did my PhD in Geneva, which is the Mecca for planet finding.

“It would be disappointing if we were the only people with the template for life in the universe.

“There is no reason to think that this planet should be the only representation of life.

“All seven planets could have water on them – we don’t know for sure because we don’t know the geology.

“Three of the planets are more conducive for water to exist on them, but this is more of a guide for us.

“Stars like Trappist-1 belong to the most common type of stars that exist within our galaxy. The planets that we found are likely representative of the most common sort of planets in the universe.

“That the planets are so similar to Earth bodes well for the search for life elsewhere.

“Planets orbiting ultra-cool dwarfs like Trappist-1 likely represent the largest habitable real estate in the Milky Way.

“I am still looking for other planets. This is one of my topics. We have observations ongoing.

“We don’t look at the sky by eye these days, we have detectors on telescopes that are more sensitive than the eye can ever be.

“The one which discovered Trappist-1 is 60cm in diameter, it is not the biggest. It has a very good camera on the back of it which allowed us to do exact measurements.

“I wondered for a while because academics is a hard career path because people holding PhDs cannot stay in academics. What pushed me to stay was a hunch that we would be able to find life out there during my lifetime. So I wanted to help all I could.

“I think it would be quite fascinating when I am a pensioner and life has been found, to think I helped to do that.

“This will now likely happen within my career and that is exciting and motivating. The ball is now in nature’s court.”



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