In association with the Geneva observatory, a team of University of Liège astrophysicists has installed a telescope at La Silla in Chile. The TRAPPIST project has the ambition of detecting and characterising extrasolar planets and analysing the chemical composition of comets.
No, the Belgian brewing industry has not added a new speciality to its repertoire. TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is a small telescope which will stir up the starry skies in the service of the University of Liège. On the initiative of scientists at the University of Liège’s Department of astrophysics, geophysics and oceanography (AGO), the project aims to push forward research in detecting and observing exoplanets (planets beyond the solar system) and comets when they sail close by the Sun. In order to ensure the best possible results it has been installed in one of the world’s best astronomical sites, the ESO (European Southern Observatory) observatory at La Silla, in the Atacama desert in Chile. If the living conditions there are not very hospitable, this region is a genuine El Dorado for astronomers because it experiences over 300 clear nights a year there. ‘You can compare that with two nights in Belgium,’ ironically says Michaël Gillon, a University of Liège researcher behind the TRAPPIST project, who is also the scientific manager and main investigator concerning exoplanets.
Despite the apparent heterogeneity of the project, the two aspects of research are linked. Certainly the same research field is not involved, but the two are inscribed in the very vast domain of astrobiology. Whilst at the antipodes of the prolific imagination such a subject is capable of generating, such as ‘The War of the Worlds,’ ‘E.T.’ or ‘Avatar,’ astrobiology, by its nature a multidisciplinary science, has as its object of study the emergence of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe. The study of exoplanets as much as the study of comets can aid a better understanding of these fundamental questions.