New Planet-Hunting Robot Telescope Takes First Photos
This first light image of the TRAPPIST national telescope at La Silla shows the Tarantula Nebula, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) — one of the galaxies closest to us. Also known as 30 Doradus or NGC 2070, the nebula owes its name to the arrangement of bright patches that somewhat resembles the legs of a tarantula. Full Story.
Credit: TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO

A new robotic telescope built to hunt for alien planets and comets from Chile has opened its camera eyes and taken its first photos of the night sky.

The first cosmic photos from the telescope, known as TRAPPIST, included stunning views of the Tarantula Nebula and spiral galaxy M83, but astronomers hope to use the advanced observatory to find two more elusive targets ? alien planets and comets that orbit the sun. The new photos were released this week.

?The two themes of the TRAPPIST project are important parts of an emerging interdisciplinary field of research ? astrobiology ? that aims at studying the origin and distribution of life in the Universe,? said astronomer Micha?l Gillon, who is in charge of the telescope's exoplanet studies for the European Southern Observatory, which is operating the new instrument.

TRAPPIST, short for TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope, is located at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile's high Atacama desert. It will hunt for extrasolar planets by tracking the telltale dips in brightness of stars as planets pass in front of them as seen from Earth and block their light.

?Terrestrial planets similar to our Earth are obvious targets for the search for life outside the Solar System, while comets are suspected to have played an important role in the appearance and development of life on our planet,? said astronomer Emmanu?l Jehin, who leads the telescope's comet-hunting mission.

The TRAPPIST telescope is also equipped with special filters that are optimized to track comets in the southern sky. Researchers plan to use the telescope to make regular comet observations to track the icy wanderers as they orbit the sun, as well as determine what types of material they eject during their cosmic travels.