Delaware Public Media

Enlighten Me: 18 years later, UD professor's celestial discovery found as hub for 7 planets

Mar 3, 2017

In 1999, a University of Delaware professor discovered a red dwarf star 235 trillion miles away from Earth.

 

But little did he know that almost 20 years later, a NASA telescope would reveal seven potentially Earth-like planets surrounding that star.

 

 

Red dwarf stars are cooler and dimmer than our solar system’s sun. If planets are nearby, it’s possible they could sustain life.

But when physics and astronomy professor John Gizis discovered a red dwarf called “2MASS” in the late ‘90s (called "TRAPPIST-1" by NASA), he did not suspect there were planets orbiting the star. 

 

“We did always say that it was important to find red dwarfs because someday someone might find planets around them,” Gizis said, “but we had no idea that this particular star was special.”

 

After Gizis discovered the star, he looked at it a few more times over the last few years, but he said he never thought to look for planets.

 

“For there to be seven is really quite amazing,” he said.

 

While it’s unknown whether or not these planets could support life, Gizis said the discovery shows astronomers shouldn’t overlook red dwarfs as they continue to scan the sky for signs of life outside our solar system.

 

“There’s too much we don’t know on what’s the effect of being so close to a red dwarf star,” Gizis said. “…We’re just gonna have to see, but it’s exciting to find out that planets like this really do exist and they’re nearby and we can study them further.”