The Breakthrough Discuss Conference kicked off its second and final day on Friday with a presentation from astronomer Michaël Gillon, who specializes in searching for extraterrestrial life around distant stars. Gillon was a fitting keynote speaker at the conference, put on by Breakthrough Initiatives, a project of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg. This project, perhaps best known for its ambitious Starshot initiative, is chiefly focused on searching distant stars for signs of life. And while Gillon hasn’t yet delivered on that effort, he’s making significant contributions to the cause.
Gillon, a Belgian researcher, leads projects involving a couple of significant telescope networks (both named after Belgian treats): the SPECULOOS (Search for Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars) project and the TRAPPIST (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) project. One of these has already revealed a star system, and Gillon says the other will show us many many more star systems in the coming decade.
In 2016, the TRAPPIST project yielded results in the form of an eponymous star system — Trappist-1, some of whose planets could possibly support life. The SPECULOOS project, which is scheduled to come online in December 2017, could show us a whole lot of systems that are similar to Trappist-1.
“We should have a dozen more systems found by SPECULOOS around bright targets, and maybe 20, 30 systems at the end of the ten years of the survey,” says Gillon.
He specifies that Trappist-1 was a perfect test case, with its seven planets all lying along a single plane. This attribute makes it easy for astronomers to measure the Trappist-1 planets’ masses, orbital periods, and distances to their star. Gillon suspects that even though this system is a remarkable example, it is hopefully not an exception.
“Not sure they will all be so co-planar, showing all the planets, all the system in all its beauty, but I think, yes, we will have a large sample at the end,” says Gillon.
So while it will still be a number of years before the SPECULOOS telescope network yields findings, Gillon and his colleagues are optimistic that these findings will be quite significant in the search for habitable planets beyond our solar system.