Scientists Discover TRAPPIST-1 is Older Than Our Solar System

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. As such, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine whether or not any planets in the system could be habitable.

When it comes to habitability studies, one of the key factors to consider is the age of the star system. Basically, young stars have a tendency to flare up and release harmful bursts of radiation while planets that orbit older stars have been subject to radiation for longer periods of time. Thanks to a new study by a pair of astronomers, it is now known that the TRAPPIST-1 system is twice as old as the Solar System.

The study, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “On The Age Of The TRAPPIST-1 System“, was led by Adam Burgasser, an astronomer at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). He was joined by Eric Mamajek, the deputy program scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (EEP) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Together, they consulted data on TRAPPIST-1s kinematics (i.e. the speed at which it orbits the center of the galaxy), its age, magnetic activity, density, absorption lines, surface gravity, metallicity, and the rate at which it experiences stellar flares. From all this, they determined that TRAPPIST-1 is quite old, somewhere between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years of age. This is up to twice as old as our own Solar System, which formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

These results contradict previously-held estimates, which were that the TRAPPIST-1 system was about 500 millions yeas old. This was based on the fact that it would have taken this long for a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1 (which has roughly 8% the mass of our Sun) to contract to its minimum size. But with an upper age limit that is just under 10 billion years, this star system could be almost as old as the Universe itself!

As Dr. Burgasser explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“Our results really help constrain the evolution of the TRAPPIST-1 system, because the system has to have persisted for billions of years. This means the planets had to evolve together, otherwise the system would have fallen apart long ago.”

The implications of this could be very significant as far as habitability studies are concerned. For one, older stars experience less in the way of flareups compared to younger ones. From their study, Burgasser and Mamajek confirmed that TRAPPIST-1 is relatively quiet compared to other ultra-cool dwarf stars. However, since the planets around TRAPPIST-1 orbit so close to their star, they have been exposed to billions of years of radiation at this point.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

As such, it is possible that most of the planets which orbit TRAPPIST-1 – expect for the outermost two, g and h – would probably have had their atmospheres stripped away – similar to what happened to Mars billions of years ago when it lost its protective magnetic field. This is certainly consistent with many recent studies, which concluded that TRAPPIST-1’s solar activity would not be conducive to life on any of its planets.

Whereas some of these studies addressed TRAPPIST-1s level of stellar flare, others examined the role magnetic fields would play. In the end, they concluded that TRAPPIST-1 was too variable, and that its own magnetic field would likely be connected to the fields of its planets, allowing particles from the star to flow directly  onto the planets atmospheres (thus allowing them to be more easily stripped away).

However, the results were not entirely bad news. Since the TRAPPIST-1 planets have estimated densities that are lower than that of Earth, it is possible that they have large amounts of volatile elements (i.e. water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, etc). These could have led to the formation of thick atmospheres that protected the surfaces from a lot of harmful radiation and redistributed heat across the tidally-locked planets.

Then again, a thick atmosphere could also have an effect akin to Venus, creating a runaway greenhouse effect that would have resulted in incredibly thick atmospheres and extremely hot surfaces. Under the circumstances, then, any life that emerged on these planets would have had to be extremely hardy in order to survive for billions of years.

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Another positive thing to consider is TRAPPIST-1’s constant brightness and temperature, which are also typical of M-class (red dwarf) stars. Stars like our Sun have an estimated lifespan of 10 billion years (which it is almost halfway through) and grow steadily brighter and hotter with time. Red dwarfs, on the other hand, are believed to exist for as much as 10 trillion years – far longer than the Universe has existed – and do not change much in intensity.

Given the amount of time it took for complex life to have emerged on Earth (over 4.5 billion years), this longevity and consistency could make red dwarf star systems the best long-term bet for habitability. Such was the conclusion of one recent study, which was conducted by Prof. Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). And as Mamajek explained:

“Stars much more massive than the Sun consume their fuel quickly, brightening over millions of years and exploding as supernovae. But TRAPPIST-1 is like a slow-burning candle that will shine for about 900 times longer than the current age of the universe.”

NASA has also expressed excitement over these findings. “These new results provide useful context for future observations of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, which could give us great insight into how planetary atmospheres form and evolve, and persist or not,” said Tiffany Kataria, an exoplanet scientist at JPL. At the moment, habitability studies of TRAPPIST-1 and other nearby star systems are confined to indirect methods.

However, in the near future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to reveal additional information – such as whether or not these planets have atmospheres and what their compositions are. Future observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope are also expected to improve our understanding of these planets and possible conditions on their surface.

Further Reading: NASA, arXiv

Even Calm Red Dwarf Stars Blast Their Planets with Mini-Flares, Destroying their Habitability

Thanks to some rather profound discoveries, red dwarf stars (aka. M-type stars) have been a popular target for exoplanet hunters lately. While small, cool, and relatively dim compared to our Sun, red dwarf star systems are where many of the most recent and promising exoplanet finds have been made. These include Proxima b, the seven rocky planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and the super-Earth discovered around LHS 1140b.

Unfortunately, red dwarf stars pose a bit of a problem when it comes to habitability. In addition to being variable in terms of the light they put out, they also known for being unstable. According to a new study by a team of scientists – which was presented the this week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society – red dwarfs also experience mini-flares that could have a cumulative effect, thus rendering their orbiting planets uninhabitable.

For the sake of their study, titled “gPhoton: The GALEX Photon Data Archive“, the team relied on the ten years of ultraviolet observations made by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft. During its mission, which ran from 2003 to 2013, GALEX monitored stars to detect rapid increases in brightness – i.e. signs of solar flare activity. These flares emit radiation across many wavelengths, but a significant amount is released in the UV band.

Artist’s impression of the GALEX mission, which monitors ultraviolet throughout the Universe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Though not originally intended for exoplanet hunting, GALEX’s data proved very useful since red dwarfs are usually relatively dim in the ultraviolet band (a trait which makes flares particularly noticeable). Using this data, the team was able to measure events that were less intense than many previously detected flares. This was important, since red dwarf flares are known to be greater in frequency, but weaker in intensity.

It was also important from a habitability standpoint, since it is possible that frequent flaring could add up over time to create an inhospitable environment on orbiting planets. If planets like Proxima b are subject to radiation from smaller (but more frequent) flares, could there be a cumulative effect that could ultimately prevent life from emerging over time?

Such is the question that the team sought to address. To do this, they sorted through the ten years of GALEX data, which is held at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Led by Chase Million of Million Concepts at State College in Pennsylvania, their efforts led to the creation of gPhoton – a 130 terabyte database with millisecond-timing resolution.

This database was then examined with custom software developed by Million and Clara Brasseur of the STScI, which enabled them to analyze the UV data at the photon level. As Million indicated, the results were quite interesting. “We have found dwarf star flares in the whole range that we expected GALEX to be sensitive to,” he said, “from itty bitty baby flares that last a few seconds, to monster flares that make a star hundreds of times brighter for a few minutes.”

While many of the flares that GALEX noticed were similar in strength to those generated by our Sun, the dynamics of red dwarf star systems are quite different. Since they are cooler and less bright, rocky planets need to orbit closer to red dwarfs in order to be warm enough to maintain liquid water on their surfaces (i.e. be habitable). This proximity means that they would be subject to more of the energy produced by these flares.

Such flares would be capable of stripping away a planet’s atmosphere, and could also prevent life from arising on the surface. And over time, smaller flares could poison an environment, making it impossible for organic life to thrive. At present, team members Brasseur and Rachel Osten (also from the STScI) are examining other stars observed by GALEX and also Kepler to look for similar flares.

The team expects to find examples of hundreds of thousands of these flares, which could help shed additional light on just what effect they could have on planetary habitability in red dwarf star systems. But for the time being, the case for red dwarf habitability appears to have been weakened. And once again, it has to do with the instability and radiation produced by these cool customers.

In the future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2018) are expected to reveal vital information on the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets. Most of these reside in red dwarf star systems, where questions about their composition and ability to support life are waiting to be resolved. In addition, the mission can also expected to shed light on these planet’s ability to retain atmospheres.

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

On the plus side, this study has shown that archival data from missions that are no longer in operation can still be incredibly useful. As Don Neill, a research scientist at Caltech and a member of the GALEX collaboration, explained:

“These results show the value of a survey mission like GALEX, which was instigated to study the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time and is now having an impact on the study of nearby habitable planets. We did not anticipate that GALEX would be used for exoplanets when the mission was designed.”

These results were presented in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society, which will be taking place from June 4th to June 8th in Austin, Texas.

Further Reading: HubbleSite, The Astrophysical Journal

Researchers Think They Know Why Venus Doesn’t Have as Many Volcanoes as Earth

The surface of Venus has been a mystery to scientists ever since the Space Age began. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, its surface is inaccessible to direct observations. In terms of exploration, the only missions to penetrate the atmosphere or reach the surface were only able to transmit data back for a matter of hours. And what we have managed to learn over the years has served to deepen its mysteries as well.

For instance, for years, scientists have been aware of the fact that Venus experiences volcanic activity similar to Earth (as evidenced by lighting storms in its atmosphere), but very few volcanoes have been detected on its surface. But thanks to a new study from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES) at the University of St. Andrews, we may be ready to put that particular mystery to bed.

The study was conducted by Dr. Sami Mikhail, a lecturer with the SEES, with the assistance of researchers from the University of Strasbourg. In examining Venus’ geological past, Mikhail and his colleagues sought to understand how it is that the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System could be considerably less geologically-active than Earth. According to their findings, the answer lies in the nature of Venus’ crust, which has a much higher plasticity.

Image of the “pancake volcanoes” located in the Eistla region, taken by the Magellan space probe. Credit: NASA/JPL

This is due to the intense heat on Venus’ surface, which averages at 737 K (462 °C; 864 °F) with very little variation between day and night or over the course of a year. Given that this heat is enough to melt lead, it has the effect of keeping Venus’ silicate crust in a softened and semi-viscous state. This prevents lava magmas from being able to move through cracks in the planets’ crust and form volcanoes (as they do on Earth).

In fact, since the crust is not particularly solid, cracks are unable to form in the crust at all, which causes magma to get stuck in the soft, malleable crust. This is also what prevents Venus from experiencing tectonic activity similar to what Earth experiences, where plates drift across the surface and collide, occasionally forcing magma up through vents. This cycle, it should be noted, is crucial to Earth’s carbon cycle and plays a vital role in Earth’s climate.

Not only do these findings explain one of the larger mysteries about Venus’ geological past, but they also are an important step towards differentiating between Earth and it’s “sister planet”. The implications of this goes far beyond the Solar System. As Dr. Mikhail said in a St. Andrews University press release:

“If we can understand how and why two, almost identical, planets became so very different, then we as geologists, can inform astronomers how humanity could find other habitable Earth-like planets, and avoid uninhabitable Earth-like planets that turn out to be more Venus-like which is a barren, hot, and hellish wasteland.”

Volcanoes and lava flows on Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL

In terms of size, composition, structure, chemistry, and its position within the Solar System (i.e. within the Sun’s habitable zone), Venus is the most-Earth like planet discovered to date. And yet, the fact that it is slightly closer to our Sun has resulted in it having a vastly different atmosphere and geological history. And these differences are what make it the hellish, uninhabitable place that is today.

Beyond our Solar System, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting various types of stars. In some cases, where the planets exist close to their sun and are in possession of an atmosphere, the planets have been designated as being “Venus-like“. This naturally sets them apart from the planets that are of particular interest to exoplanet hunters – i.e. the “Earth-like” ones.

Knowing how and why these two very similar planets can differ so dramatically in terms of their geological and environmental conditions is therefore key to being able to tell the difference between planets that are conducive to life and hostile to life. That can only come in handy when we begin to study multiple-planet systems (such as the seven-planet system of TRAPPIST-1) more closely.

Further Reading: University of St. Andrews

Huge News, Seven Earth-Sized Worlds Orbiting a Red Dwarf, Three in the Habitable Zone

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In what is surely the biggest news since the hunt for exoplanets began, NASA announced today the discovery of a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Discovered by a team of astronomers using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope, this find is especially exciting since all of these planets are believed to be Earth-sized and terrestrial (i.e. rocky).

But most exciting of all is the fact that three of these rocky exoplanets orbit within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). This means, in effect, that these planets are capable of having liquid water on their surfaces and could therefore support life. As far as extra-solar planet discoveries go, this is without precedent, and the discovery heralds a new age in the search for life beyond our Solar System.

The team behind the discovery was led by Michael Gillon, an astronomer from the University of Liege in Belgium. Using the The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory in Chile, he and his colleagues first noticed the presence of three planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system in May of 2016.

Artist’s concept showing what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team made their observations of this star system – which is located about 39 light years from Earth in the direction of the Aquarius constellation – from September to December 2015. This discovery was immediately followed-up using several ground-based telescopes, which included including the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Data from these surveys confirmed the existence of two of these planets, and revealed five more – making this the largest find around a single star in exoplanet-hunting history. Relying on the Spitzer data, Dr. Gillon and his team were also able to obtain precise information on the planets using the transit method. By measuring the periodic dips in TRAPPIST-1’s luminosity (from the planet’s passing in front of it), they were able to measure their sizes, masses and densities.

This is especially important when studying exoplanets. Not only does it allow scientists to make accurate assessments of a planet’s composition (i.e. whether or not its rocky, icy, or gaseous), it is key in determining whether or not a planet could be habitable. It was also the first time in which accurate constraints were placed upon the masses and radii of exoplanets using this method.

A follow-up survey was then mounted with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study the three innermost planets and look for signs of hydrogen and helium – the chemical signatures that would indicate if the planets were gas giants.  Hubble detected no evidence of hydrogen and helium atmospheres, which only strengthened the case for these planets being rocky in nature.

Another exciting aspect of all this is that these seven exoplanets – which are some of the best candidates for habitability – are near enough to Earth to be studies closely. As Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, said in a NASA press release:

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star. It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

Nikole Lewis, the co-leader of the Hubble study and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, was also on hand at the NASA press briefing where the findings were announced. There, she shared information that was obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. And as she explained, of the three worlds that are in the habitable zone – TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g – all experience conditions that are very similar to what we experience here on Earth.

TRAPPIST-1e is the innermost of the three exoplanets. It is very close in size to Earth, and receives about the same amount of light as Earth does – which means temperatures are likely to be very close to Earth’s as well. TRAPPIST-1f, meanwhile, is a potentially-water rich world that is also likely to be the same size as Earth. It has a 9-day orbit, and receives about the same amount of sunlight as Mars.

The outermost of the habitable zone planets is Trappist 1g. With a radius that is 13% larger than that of Earth, it is the largest planet in the system, and receives about the same amount of light as a body positioned between Mars and the Asteroid Belt would. Between these three exoplanets, and the four others in the system, astronomers now have a multiple candidates within the same star system to study what potentially-habitable worlds might look like.

Artist’s concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During the course of the NASA press briefing, Dr. Gillon stressed why the discovery of this system is a  major boon for astronomers and planetary scientists. Not only is this the first time that so many exoplanets have been discovered around the same star, but the fact that it is a red dwarf – a class of small, cooler, dimmer stars – is especially encouraging.

Compared to other classes, red dwarfs (aka. M-class stars) are the most frequent type of star in the Universe – making up an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. On top of that, the TRAPPIST-1 system is rather unique. As Gillon explained, the planets are in close enough proximity that they gravitationally interact with one another. Their proximity would also make for some excellent viewing opportunities for a person standing on the surface of one of them.

“The planets are close enough to each other,” he said, “that if you were on the surface of one, you would have a wonderful view of the others. You would see them not as we see Venus or Mars from Earth (as bright stars), but as we see the Moon. They would be as large or larger than the Moon.”

In the coming weeks and months, NASA plans to follow-up on this system of planets even more. At the moment, the Kepler space telescope is studying the system, conducting measurements of minuscule changes in the star’s brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system.

In the meantime, Dr. Gillon and his team will be using ground-based telescopes to search 1000 of the nearest ultra-cool dwarf stars to see if they too have multi-planet systems. Nikole Lewis indicated that Hubble will be conducting further observations of TRAPPIST-1 in order to obtain information about the planets’ atmospheres.

These studies will determine what gases make up the atmospheres, but will also be looking for tell-tale signs of those that indicate the presence of organic life – i.e. methane, ozone, oxygen, etc.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” she said. “Not only will these studies let us know if any of these planets have the kind of atmospheres that are conducive to life, they will also tell us much about the formation and evolution processes of the surface – which are also key factors in determining habitability.”

The Spitzer Space Telescope will also be trained on this system in order to obtain follow-up information on the planets’ atmospheres. Besides looking for biological indicators (such as oxygen gas, ozone and methane), it will also be trying to determine the greenhouse gas content of the atmospheres – which will help put further constrains on the surface temperatures of the planets.

On top of that, next-generation missions – like the James Webb Telescope – are expected to play a vital role in learning more about this system. As Sara Seager – a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT – explained in the course of the briefing, the discovery of a system with multiple potentially-habitable planets was a giant, accelerated leap forward in the hunt for life beyond our Solar System.

Artist’s impression of the view from one of the exoplanets discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

“Goldilocks has several sisters,” as she put it. “An amazing system like this one lets us know there are many more life-bearing worlds out there. This star system is a veritable laboratory for studying stars orbiting very cool, very dim stars. We get to test many theories about these worlds, being tidally-locked and amount of radiation coming from host star.”

Thomas Zurbuchen – the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate – was also on hand at the briefing. In addition to expressing how this was a first for NASA and exoplanet-hunters everywhere, he also expressed how exciting it was in the context of searching for life beyond our Solar System:

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

Further Reading: NASA