Belgian astronomers who found solar system name it after a beer

Jordan Bhatt
TRAPPIST-1f

According to a prominent Belgian astronomer, the name of the recently-discovered star system containing several potentially habitable exoplanets, and the telescope program used to find it, is all about a beer brand.

Earlier in February, NASA announced the discovery of at least seven Earth- and Venus-sized exoplanets orbiting a star known as TRAPPIST-1, some of which may have the conditions for life.

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Belgian astronomer and astrophysicist Michael Gillon said: "We wanted to hint at the Belgian origins of this project and so we devised the acronym TRAPPIST — TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope.

"And the beer reference was chosen because Belgian beer is well known around the globe, and Trappist beer is considered to be one of the best beer brands in the world, with most of its varieties being brewed in Belgium."

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According to Gillon, the TRAPPIST planet-searching effort will also be bolstered by SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) – an array of four telescopes soon to be installed in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

For five years, the search turned up nothing but false positives. But one day, incredibly, Gillon discovered the first TRAPPIST exoplanet while sitting on his sofa at home.

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"I saw this drop in brightness, which was a clear indication that something had passed in front of the star," Gillon said. "My wife was already sleeping, my daughter was going to bed, and I said, 'hey, look! This is an Earth-sized planet.' She was not impressed at all because it was just a graphic."

And while scientists can't yet reach the TRAPPIST-1 system in person in order to ascertain the presence of living organisms there, they can remotely study the planets' atmosphere for "traces of molecules related to life, the kind that are produced by living organisms."

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