New Worlds, New Priorities


In the search for exoplanets, and life beyond our own solar system, new small-scale, turnkey design telescopes are packing a big punch.

One of the most significant goals of modern astronomy is to discover if life exists on exoplanets encircling other stars—and innovations in ground-based telescope technology are proving to be an incredibly cost-effective way to reach this goal within the next decade. Inexpensive and easy to deploy, these new telescope projects offer an exciting opportunity to significantly boost the scientific returns of the next generation of advanced observatories, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launching in 2018.

New Planets Found Orbiting Ultra-Cool Stars

Using TRAPPIST, a robotic prototype telescope just 60cm in diameter in the Atacama Desert of Chile, researchers at the University of Liège and MIT EAPS postdoc Julien de Wit PhD ‘14 (XII)—a member of the MIT Seager group—recently announced the exciting discovery of three terrestrial planets orbiting a nearby small, ultra-cool star: TRAPPIST-1.

The discovery of three temperate Earth-sized planets around such a star is a real gamechanger. The TRAPPIST project (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope Primary Investigators: Michaël Gillon and Emmanuel Jehin) proved that even the tiniest, coolest stars can amass enough orbital material to lead to the formation of planets.

But perhaps of most significance is that, at just 40 light-years away, these are the first exoplanets with conditions possibly hospitable to life which are suitable for thorough atmospheric studies with the JWST. Using the “transit method” to detect and study temperate terrestrial planets (observed when planets cross in front of their host star), relatively dim ultra-cool stars allow for a substantial amplification of a planet’s signal up to 100 times that found when studying larger Sun analogs.


Using the Hubble Space Telescope, de Wit already got a first peek at the atmospheres of the two innermost planets, revealing that they are compact, much like Earth, Venus, or Mars. Such pre-screenings ensure that detailed follow-ups using the JWST can be optimized. The JWST will have a nominal lifetime of just 5-10 years, so it is vital for us to identify the most promising exoplanets now for further investigation. In addition, studying planets like TRAPPIST-1’s will also inform the development of tools for the characterization of the non-transiting world recently found orbiting our Sun’s neighbor, Proxima Centauri.

The Opportunity for Science and for MIT

The TRAPPIST-1 discovery was achieved in the prototype phase of the project SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-cOOl Stars), which aims to explore all the nearest and brightest ultracool stars for potentially habitable planets which are well-suited for assessment with coming technologies. SPECULOOS will soon be composed of a network of six telescopes, with five in Chile and one in Morocco.

To optimize its potential for detecting planets like those orbiting TRAPPIST-1, the SPECULOOS project needs to be expanded to widen our view of the northern skies. The most efficient and cost-effective way to achieve this is to install more small (60cm or 1m) telescopes in northern hemisphere astronomical sites. One additional 1-meter SPECULOOS telescope can be acquired by MIT for just $1,000,000. The technology is turnkey and agile, able to go from site selection to first light in a swift 6-9 months. Further, SPECULOOS observatories would be the best assets to follow-up on and confirm the planet candidates to be found by the MIT-led NASA TESS mission (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), scheduled for launch in 2017. At present, MIT doesn’t yet own any such facilities.

The Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) is now engaging colleagues from MIT’s School of Science in this groundbreaking and time-sensitive project. “Expanding the SPECULOOS mission quickly into the northern hemisphere would double the planet yield before JWST’s launch, and hence our chance of identifying habitable exoplanets. Scientists across MIT and around the world are eager to partner in this exciting opportunity,” said EAPS principal collaborator, Dr. de Wit.

How You Can Help

MIT has an extraordinary, time-limited opportunity to play a central role in this historical scientific initiative to identify habitable exoplanets and discover signs of life outside of our solar system. Our goal is to raise $1,000,000 to build one new SPECULOOS telescope by summer 2017. We already have one scientific partner willing to invest $600,000 in this project! Can you help us raise the remaining $400,000 by April, 2017?  Please consider making a gift to the SPECULOOS project, to ensure that MIT can become a full partner in the SPECULOOS consortium and make scientific history in exoplanet discovery.

"New Worlds, New Discoveries: A Major Leap in the Search for Life Beyond our Solar System

In the last two decades, thousands of planets have been found beyond our solar system. Among them, a few dozen are potentially habitable, i.e. they could harbor surface conditions suitable for life. However, until now, we have only been able to speculate, as detecting life on these planets was totally out of reach, even with the largest existing - or planned - telescopes. But a new project called SPECULOOS is changing the game, by detecting terrestrial planets around nearby small stars that are well-suited for the detection of life with *upcoming* observatories. Join us to hear about the latest findings of TRAPPIST, the prototype of SPECULOOS—and the path forward to studying these worlds, and exploring them for signs of life within the next decade.

About the Speakers

Michaël Gillon is an astronomer at the University of Liège, Belgium. His main scientific interest (and passion!) is the search for extraterrestrial life around other stars. After degrees in biochemistry and astrophysics at Liège, he defended his PhD thesis on the improvement of photometry in exoplanetary transits in 2006. He then spent three years as a postdoc in Geneva within Michel Mayor’s group, where he performed the first detection of the transit of a Neptune-size exoplanet. Since 2009, he has been back at University of Liège working on exoplanet detection and their physiochemical characterization. He is PI for the TRAPPIST project, that resulted in numerous publications as well as the co-detection of more than one hundred exoplanets. Since 2012, he has been developing the SPECULOOS project in collaboration with peers and the University of Cambridge and the University of Jeda. The aim of this project is to explore the nearest and smallest stars in order to detect habitable planets well-suited for life detection with *upcoming* observatories.

Julien de Wit PhD '14 (XII) is a Postdoctoral Associate working in the Seager Group in EAPS. His primary interest and expertise "lie in the field of data science where Math and Science are brought together to make sense of newly accessible pieces of Reality!" Over the past five years, he has developed and applied new analysis techniques to map exoplanet atmospheres, study the radiative and tidal planet-star interactions in eccentric planetary systems, and constrain the atmospheric properties and mass of exoplanets solely from transmission spectroscopy. Julien is playing a critical role in the TRAPPIST/SPECULOOS project, and he is leading the atmospheric characterization of the planets for which he has already obtained startling results with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age

Space will be hackable. Space will be playful. Space grows ever more accessible to the space enthusiast—through the reach of their DIY instruments, experiments, sensors and satellites, and soon through space tourism. This opportunity to design our interplanetary lives beckons to us. On Sunday, March 12, EAPS postdoc Julien de Wit PhD '14 (XII) spoke at an MIT Media Lab event about exoplanets.

For more information about SPECULOOS and EAPS planetary science research,
or to make a contribution, please contact: 
Angela Ellis, EAPS Senior Development Officer 
617 253 5796 |

ESOcast 83: Ultracool Dwarf with Planets Astronomers using telescopes at ESO's observatories in Chile have discovered three planets around a dim dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and the Earth, and they are the best targets so far found in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Universe - Credit: ESO

Story Images: [TOP] A nighttime view of the Observatory in Chile where TRAPPIST is located - Image credit: E. Jehin/ESO, [MIDDLE] A daytime view of  TRAPPIST, [BOTTOM] In contrast to its larger space-based cousin Kepler, which was designed to survey hundreds of thousands of faraway stars, the diminutive and inexpensive TRAPPIST ground telescope is purpose-built to track only those cool, dim, dwarf stars in our immediate galactic neighborhood which could be hosting temperate terrestrial planets. Studies have shown that habitable Earth-sized planets transiting one of the 1000 nearest ultra-cool stars would be the only suitable candidates for thorough atmospheric study and analysis with coming technologies. After scanning just 15 of these ultra-cool stars, TRAPPIST was already able to find 3 such planets— the first ever observed orbiting a dim star—opening an exciting new chapter in the hunt for life beyond our solar system. Pictured here in an artist’s rendering is the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its three newly- discovered planets—a star just one-tenth the size of our sun, a mere 40 light-years away - Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (