How NASA ‘stole’ seven exoplanets

Artist’s impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system and its planets reflected in a surface. This image NASA used for their press release about the discovery and it was the 22 February 2017 Nature cover.

Last February NASA held a press conference to announce the discovery of seven Earth-sized rocky planets orbiting a small star not too far away from Earth – in galactic terms, obviously – at 39 light-years of distance.

The discovery is newsworthy because it’s the first time that so many rocky planets the size of Earth are observed together around a single star. Astronomers think that at least three of them are firmly located in the “habitable zone” of the star – the right distance where they aren’t too hot or too cold for liquid water on their surface. It is commonly believed that liquid water is the first prerequisite for the formation of life.

It is also cool that the star – called TRAPPIST-1 – is not a Sun-like star, but an ultra-cool dwarf, an object in between a giant gas planet like Jupiter and a star like our sun. This kind of star had been previously overlooked by planet-hunting efforts but now seem to be a great place to look for them, since ultra-cold dwarfs are more common in the Milky Way (our galaxy) than stars like the sun.

But if you are a bit picky and enjoy looking behind the curtain of science (like I do) you might have noticed something odd about this announcement: That’s the fact that NASA didn’t actually discover these planets. This finding is the product of an international collaboration between 30 scientists from more than 20 research institutions worldwide. Their names and institutions can be found at the research article published by Nature and only three of them work for NASA.

The TRAPPIST-1 system was actually discovered in 2016 by a Swiss-Belgian collaboration that operates two robotic telescopes located on Chile (TRAPPIST-South) and Morocco (TRAPPIST-North). The name TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, but is an obvious homage to a popular type of Belgian beer. What NASA did for this research was to lend observation time on the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes to help with the observation of the TRAPPIST-1 system. They were part of an international effort to get a better view of the object and try to get the bigger picture. Other ground based telescopes were used, including the Very Large Telescope in Chile, the Liverpool and UKIRT telescopes in Hawaii, and the William Herschel Telescope in Spain.

So, how did NASA get all the credit?

Usually when an international collaboration makes an important finding, all the involved organizations agree on a common strategy for the announcement. In large collaborations with huge budgets they tend to do a common press release and hold joint events where they can make sure their scientists are properly represented. In smaller collaborations, like in this case, they usually agree on a common schedule, but each institution can promote their part as they see fit, as long as they don’t spoil the surprise by making the announcement ahead of time.  They also have to give credit to their colleagues in any text or material they release.

In this case NASA had invested a lot of telescope hours observing TRAPPIST-1. Since the findings were relevant, they probably decided to create a big fuss about it. NASA announced that a press conference would be held where they would unveil a “discovery beyond our solar system.” Every time NASA does that they get huge media attention, since journalists usually begin to speculate that they have found aliens of some sort (no kidding). Even if they know they are going to be disappointed, media and journalists’ attention is guaranteed.

So, with everybody looking at NASA for the announcement, it didn’t really matter that other research centers put out press releases about their contribution. NASA’s press release did clearly mention their collaboration with other institutions, but that didn’t make any of the headlines the next day. I haven’t seen a single one mentioning other telescopes or countries.

So, is this a bad thing? Probably not for the scientists. Since NASA has more media muscle than any other institution involved in this research, probably the discovery itself got more attention that they would have got otherwise. The research article will probably get a lot of citations and readership and that will be good for the scientists.

From an institutional view, NASA is the sole winner. Their collaborators put in manpower and material resources and didn’t get mentioned in the press, so that’s a loss for them. In an ideal world, being able to produce a discovery should be good enough, but scientific institutions need to show that they make progress to their stakeholders. Whether those stakeholders are private donors or taxpayers, getting media coverage is in most cases a good thing for them.

In conclusion, there is not a lot that smaller organizations can do to highlight their contribution when they partner up with a media Goliath like NASA. A good strategy could be to contact local media outlets ahead of time and let them know there are national or local researchers involved and make them available for interviews.

To end, let me share this link that shows all that’s mentioned above. It comes from The Guardian, a British outlet. It only mentions NASA, although they use footage produced by ESO, one of the European partners. The headline only mentions NASA and the only voice we hear is that of NASA’s spokesperson. At the very end we also see that the video is listed under the category ‘Alien life’ along with the tags ‘Space’ and ‘NASA.’

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