Even Though Red Dwarfs Have Long Lasting Habitable Zones, They’d be Brutal to Life

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ever since scientists confirmed the existence of seven terrestrial planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, this system has been a focal point of interest for astronomers. Given its proximity to Earth (just 39.5 light-years light-years away), and the fact that three of its planets orbit within the star’s “Goldilocks Zone“, this system has been an ideal location for learning more about the potential habitability of red dwarf stars systems.

This is especially important since the majority of stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs (aka. M-type dwarf stars). Unfortunately, not all of the research has been reassuring. For example, two recent studies performed by two separate teams from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) indicate that the odds finding life in this system are less likely than generally thought.

The first study, titled “Physical Constraints on the Likelihood of Life on Exoplanets“, sought to address how radiation and stellar wind would affect any planets located within TRAPPIST-1s habitable zone. Towards this end, the study’s authors – Professors Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb – constructed a model that considered how certain factors would affect conditions on the surface of these planets.

This artist’s concept shows 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

This model took into account how the planets distance from their star would affect surface temperatures and atmospheric loss, and how this might affect the changes life would have to emerge over time. As Dr. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“We considered the erosion of the atmosphere of the planets due to the stellar wind and the role of temperature on ecological and evolutionary processes. The habitable zone around the faint dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is several tens of times closer in than for the Sun, hence the pressure of the stellar wind is several orders of magnitude higher than on Earth. Since life as we know it requires liquid water and liquid water requires an atmosphere, it is less likely that life exists around TRAPPIST-1 than in the solar system.”

Essentially, Dr. Lingam and Dr, Loeb found that planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would be barraged by UV radiation with an intensity far greater than that experienced by Earth. This is a well-known hazard when it comes to red dwarf stars, which are variable and unstable when compared to our own Sun. They concluded that compared to Earth, the chances of complex life existing on planets within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone were less than 1%.

“We showed that Earth-sized exoplanets in the habitable zone around M-dwarfs display much lower prospects of being habitable relative to Earth, owing to the higher incident ultraviolet fluxes and closer distances to the host star,” said Loeb. “This applies to the recently discovered exoplanets in the vicinity of the Sun, Proxima b (the nearest star four light years away) and TRAPPIST-1 (ten times farther), which we find to be several orders of magnitude smaller than that of Earth.”

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

The second study – “The Threatening Environment of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets“, which was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters – was produced by a team from the CfA and the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts. Led by Dr. Cecilia Garraffo of the CfA, the team considered another potential threat to life in this system.

Essentially, the team found that TRAPPIST-1, like our Sun, sends streams of charged particles outwards into space – i.e. stellar wind. Within the Solar System, this wind exerts force on the planets and can have the effect of stripping away their atmospheres. Whereas Earth’s atmosphere is protected by its magnetic field, planets like Mars are not – hence why it lost the majority of its atmosphere to space over the course of hundreds of million of years.

As the research team found, when it comes to TRAPPIST-1, this stream exerts a force on its planets that is between 1,000 to 100,000 times greater than what Earth experiences from solar wind. Furthermore, they argue that TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field is likely connected to the magnetic fields of the planets that orbit around it, which would allow particles from the star to directly flow onto the planet’s atmosphere.

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

In other words, if TRAPPIST-1’s planets do have magnetic fields, they will not afford them any protection. So if the flow of charged particles is strong enough, it could strip these planets’ atmospheres away, thus rendering them uninhabitable. As Garraffo put it:

“The Earth’s magnetic field acts like a shield against the potentially damaging effects of the solar wind. If Earth were much closer to the Sun and subjected to the onslaught of particles like the TRAPPIST-1 star delivers, our planetary shield would fail pretty quickly.”

As you can imagine, this is not exactly good news for those who were hoping that the TRAPPIST-1 system would hold the first evidence of life beyond our Solar System. Between the fact that its planets orbit a star that emits varying degrees of intense radiation, and the proximity its seven planets have to the star itself, the odds of life emerging on any planet within it’s “habitable zone” are not significant.

The findings of the second study are particularly significant in light of other recent studies. In the past, Prof. Loeb and a team from the University of Chicago have both addressed the possibility that the TRAPPIST-1 system’s seven planets – which are relatively close together – are well-suited to lithopanspermia. In short, they determined that given their close proximity to each other, bacteria could be transferred from one planet to the next via asteroids.

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

But if the proximity of these planets also means that they are unlikely to retain their atmospheres in the face of stellar wind, the likelihood of lithopanspermia may be a moot point. However, before anyone gets to thinking that this is bad news as far as the hunt for life goes, it is important to note that this study does not rule out the possibility of life emerging in all red dwarf star systems.

As Dr. Jeremy Drake – a senior astrophysicist from the CfA and one of Garraffo’s co-authors – indicated, the results of their study simply mean that we need to cast a wide net when searching for life in the Universe.  “We’re definitely not saying people should give up searching for life around red dwarf stars,” he said. “But our work and the work of our colleagues shows we should also target as many stars as possible that are more like the Sun.”

And as Dr. Loeb himself has indicated in the past, red dwarf stars are still the most statistically-likely place to find habitable worlds:

“By surveying the habitability of the Universe throughout cosmic history from the birth of the first stars 30 million years after the Big Bang to the death of the last stars in 10 trillion years, one reaches the conclusion that unless habitability around low-mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1 trillions of years from now.”

If there is one takeaway from these studies, it is that the existence of life within a star system does not simply require planets orbiting within the circumstellar habitable zones. The nature of the stars themselves and the role played by solar wind and magnetic fields also have to be taken into account, since they can mean the difference between a life-bearing planet and a sterile ball of rock!

Further Reading: CfA, International Journal of Astrobiology, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

We Have More Details on the Outermost Trappist-1 Planet!

The announcement of a seven-planet system around the star TRAPPIST-1 earlier this year set off a flurry of scientific interest. Not only was this one of the largest batches of planets to be discovered around a single star, the fact that all seven were shown to be terrestrial (rocky) in nature was highly encouraging. Even more encouraging was the fact that three of these planets were found to be orbiting with the star’s habitable zone.

Since that time, astronomers have been seeking to learn all they can about this system of planets. Aside from whether or not they have atmospheres, astronomers are also looking to learn more about their orbits and surface conditions. Thanks to the efforts of a University of Washington-led international team of astronomers, we now have an accurate idea of what conditions might be like on its outermost planet – TRAPPIST-1h.

According to the team’s study – “A seven-planet resonant chain in TRAPPIST-1“, which was recently published in the journal Nature Astronomy – they relied on data from the Kepler mission to determine the planet’s orbital period. Specifically, they consulted data obtained during Campaign 12 of the K2 mission, a 79-day observation period that ran from December 15th, 2016 to March 4th, 2017.

This artist’s concept shows 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

Led by Rodrigo Luger, a graduate student at the University of Washington, the team was already aware of pattern in the orbits of the system’s six inner planets. This was based on prior data provided by the Spitzer Space Telescope, which indicated that these planets are in an orbital resonance – i.e. their respective orbital periods are mathematically related and influence one other.

From this data, the team had already calculated that TRAPPIST-1h would have an orbital period of just less than 19 days. Once they consulted the K2 data, they noticed that during the 79-day observation period, TRAPPIST-1h made four transit of the star – which worked out to an orbital period of 18.77 days. In other words, the team found that their observations were consistent with their calculations.

This finding was a welcome relief to Luger and his colleagues. As he stated in a UW press release:

“TRAPPIST-1h was exactly where our team predicted it to be. It had me worried for a while that we were seeing what we wanted to see. Things are almost never exactly as you expect in this field – there are usually surprises around every corner, but theory and observation matched perfectly in this case.”

The discovery of this resonance means that TRAPPIST-1 has set another record. For starters, it is already renowned from being one of only two star systems to host seven extra-solar planets – the other being the HR 8832 star system, a main-sequence K3V-type variable star located 21 light years away. Second, it has the most confirmed terrestrial planets to be discovered in a single star system to date.

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

But with this latest data, TRAPPIST-1 now holds the record for having the most planets in an orbital resonance as well. The previous place holders were Kepler-80 and Kepler-223, both of which have four planets in an orbital resonance. According to Luger, this resonance was likely established when the TRAPPIST-1 system was still young and the planets were still in the process of formation. As Luger explained:

“The resonant structure is no coincidence, and points to an interesting dynamical history in which the planets likely migrated inward in lock-step. This makes the system a great testbed for planet formation and migration theories. We could therefore be looking at a planet that was once habitable and has since frozen over, which is amazing to contemplate and great for follow-up studies.”

The possibility that the planets achieved their current orbital dance early in the system’s history could also mean that TRAPPIST-1h was once habitable. While three planets orbit with the star’s habitable zone (TRAPPIST-1 d, e, and f), TRAPPIST-1h orbits the star at a distance of about 10 million km (6 million mi), which places it well beyond the reach of the star’s habitable zone.

In fact, at this distance, TRAPPIST-1h gets about as much energy from the Sun as the dwarf planet Ceres (located in our Solar System in Main Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter), which results in an average surface temperature of 173 K (-100 °C; -148 °F). But in the past, when its star was brighter and hotter, the planet may have received enough energy that its surface would have been warm enough to support liquid water.

Artist concepts of the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 with their orbital periods, distances from their star, radii and masses as compared to those of Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL

“We could therefore be looking at a planet that was once habitable and has since frozen over, which is amazing to contemplate and great for follow-up studies,” said Luger. TRAPPIST-1 is also a prime candidate for follow-up study given its proximity. Located just 39.5 light years from Earth, this star and its system of planets present some exceptional opportunities for the study of exoplanets and M-type star habitability.

Beyond that, this study also demonstrated that despite the failure of two reaction wheels, the Kepler mission is still extremely useful when it comes to the study of exoplanets. Despite the fact that maintaining a steady eye on the TRAPPIST-1 system presented instrumental challenges, Kepler still managed to produce reliable information that was consistent with the team’s calculations.

Besides determining TRAPPIST-1h’s orbital period, the team used the K2 data to further characterize the orbits of the other six planets, rule out the possibility of there being more planets in the system, and learn more about the star itself (such as its rotation period and level of activity). This information will also be crucial in determining whether or not any of the planets located within the star’s habitable zone could in fact be habitable.

The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1’s system was an event that was many years in the making. But the rate at which new discoveries have turned up has been very impressive. In the coming years, with the deployment of next-generation planet-hunters – like the James Webb Telescope and the Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – we will be able to dig deeper and learn even more.

And be sure to enjoy this video of TRAPPIST-1’s orbital resonance, courtesy of Assistant Professor Daniel Fabrycky of the University of Chicago:

Further Reading: UW Today, Nature Astronomy

 

Here’s How We Can Detect Plants on Extrasolar Planets

The past year has been an exciting time for those engaged in the hunt for extra-solar planets and potentially habitable worlds. In August of 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of the closest exoplanet to Earth (Proxima b) yet discovered. This was followed a few months later (February of 2017) with the announcement of a seven-planet system around TRAPPIST-1.

The discovery of these and other extra-solar planets (and their potential to host life) was an overarching theme at this year’s Breakthrough Discuss conference. Taking place between April 20th and 21st, the conference was hosted by Stanford University’s Department of Physics and sponsored by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Breakthrough Initiatives.

Founded in 2015 by Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, Breakthrough Initiatives was created to encourage the exploration of other star systems and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). In addition to prepping what could very well be the first mission to another star system (Breakthrough Starshot), they are also developing what will be the world’s most advanced search for extra-terrestrial civilizations (Breakthrough Listen).

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The first day of the conference featured presentations that addressed recent exoplanet discoveries around M-type (aka. red dwarf) stars and what possible strategies will be used to study them. In addition to addressing the plethora of terrestrial planets that have been discovered around these types of stars in recent years, the presentations also focused on how and when life might be confirmed on these planets.

One such presentation was titled “SETI Observations of Proxima b and Nearby Stars”, which was hosted by Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina. In addition to being a professor of astrophysics with the University of Freiburg and a member of the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics, Dr. Berdyugina is also one of the founding members of the Planets Foundation  – an international team of professors, astrophysicists, engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists dedicated to the development of advanced telescopes.

As she indicated during the course of the presentation, the same instruments and methods used to study and characterize distant stars could be used to confirm the presence of continents and vegetation on the surface of distant exoplanets. The key here – as as been demonstrated by decades of Earth observation – is to observe the reflected light (or “light curve”) coming from their surfaces.

Measurements of a star’s light curve are used to to determine what type of class a star is and what processes are at work within it. Light curves are also routinely used to discern the presence of planets around stars – aka. the Transit Method, where a planet transiting in front of a star causes a measurable dip in its brightness – as well as determining the size and orbital period of the planet.

Diagram illustrating how the absorption of light can be used to determine the presence of vegetation on an extra-solar planet. Credit: S. Berdyugina.

When used for the sake of planetary astronomy, measuring the light curve of worlds like Proxima b could not only allow astronomers to be able to tell the difference between land masses and oceans, but also to discern the presence of meteorological phenomena. These would include clouds, periodic variations in albedo (i.e. seasonal change), and even the presence of photosynthetic life forms (aka. plants).

For example, and illustrated by the diagram above, green vegetation absorbs almost all the red, green and blue (RGB) parts of the spectrum, but reflects infrared light. This sort of process has been used for decades by Earth observation satellites to track meteorological phenomena, measure the extent of forests and vegetation, track the expansion of population centers, and monitor the growth of deserts.

In addition, the presence of biopigments caused by chlorophyll means that the reflected RGB light would be highly-polarized while UR light would be weakly polarized. This will allow astronomers to tell the difference between vegetation and something that is simply green in color. To gather this information, she stated, will require the work of off-axis telescopes that are both large and high-contrast.

These are expected to include the Colossus Telescope, a project for a massive telescope that is being spearheaded by the Planets Foundation – and for which Dr. Berdyugina is the project lead. Once completed, Colossus will be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world, not to mention the largest telescope optimized for detecting extrasolar life and extraterrestrial civilizations.

It consists of 58 independent off-axis 8-meter telescopes, which effectively merge their telescope-interferometry to offer an effective resolution of 74-meters. Beyond Colossus, the Planets Foundation is also responsible for the ExoLife Finder (ELF). This 40-m telescope uses many of the same technologies that will go into Colossus, and is expected to be the first telescope to create surface maps of nearby exoplanets.

And then there’s the Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extra-Terrestrial Planets (PLANETS) telescope, which is currently being constructed in Haleakala, Hawaii (expected to be completed by January 2018). Here too, this telescope is a technology demonstrator for what will eventually go into making Colossus a reality.

Beyond the Planets Foundation, other next-generation telescopes are also expected to conduct high-quality spectroscopic studies of distant exoplanets. The most famous of these is arguably NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next year.

And be sure to check out the video of Dr. Berdyugina full presentation below:

Further Reading: Breakthrough Initiatives, Centauri Dreams

 

TRAPPIST-1 System Ideal For Life Swapping

Back in February of 2017, NASA announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting a nearby star. This system, known as TRAPPIST-1, is of particular interest to astronomers because of the nature and orbits of the planets. Not only are all seven planets terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), but three of the seven have been confirmed to be within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).

But beyond the chance that some of these planets could be inhabited, there is also the possibility that their proximity to each other could allow for life to be transferred between them. That is the possibility that a team of scientists from the University of Chicago sought to address in a new study. In the end, they concluded that bacteria and single-celled organisms could be hopping from planet to planet.

This study, titled “Fast Litho-panspermia in the Habitable Zone of the TRAPPIST-1 System“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. For the sake of seeing if life could be distributed within this star system (aka. litho-panspermia), Krijt and his fellow UChicago scientists ran simulations that showed that this process could happen 4 to 5 times faster than it would in our Solar System.

This artist’s concept shows 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

As Sebastiaan Krijt – a postdoctoral scholar at UChicago and the lead author on the study – said in a University press release:

“Frequent material exchange between adjacent planets in the tightly packed TRAPPIST-1 system appears likely. If any of those materials contained life, it’s possible they could inoculate another planet with life.”

For the sake of their study, the team considered that any transfers of life would likely involve asteroids or comets striking planets within the star’s habitable zone (HZ) and then transferring the resulting material to other planets. They then simulated the trajectories that the ejecta would take, and tested to see if it would have the necessary speed to get out of orbit (escape velocity) and be captured by a neighboring planet’s gravity.

In the end, they determined that roughly 10% of the material that would be capable of transferring life would have the velocity necessary to not only achieve escape velocity. This covered the pieces of ejecta that would be large enough to endure irradiation and the heat of re-entry. What’s more, they found that this material would be able to reach another HZ planet with periods ranging from 10 to 100 years.

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

For over a century, scientists have considered the possibility that life may be distributed throughout our Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, and planetoids. Similarly, multiple studies have been conducted to see if the building blocks of life could have come to Earth (and been distributed throughout the Solar System) in the same way.

Every year, an estimated 36,287 metric tons (40,000 tons) of space debris falls to Earth, and material that has been ejected from our planet is floating around out in space as well. And we know for a fact that Earth and Mars have exchanged material on several occasions, where Martian ejecta kicked up by asteroids and comets was thrown into space and eventually collided with our planet.

As such, studies like this can help us to understand how life came to be in our Solar System. At the same time, they can illustrate how in other star systems, the process may be far more intense. As Fred Ciesla – a professor of geophysical sciences at UChicago and a co-author of the paper – explained:

“Given that tightly packed planetary systems are being detected more frequently, this research will make us rethink what we expect to find in terms of habitable planets and the transfer of life—not only in the TRAPPIST-1 system, but elsewhere. We should be thinking in terms of systems of planets as a whole, and how they interact, rather than in terms of individual planets.”

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

And with all the exoplanets discoveries made of late – which can only be described as explosive – opportunities for research are similarly exploding. In total, some 3,483 exoplanets have been confirmed so far, with an additional 4,496 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of the confirmed planets, 581 have been found to exist within multi-planet systems (like TRAPPIST-1), each of which present the possibility of litho-panspermia.

By studying more and more in the way of distant planets, we can reach beyond our own Solar System to see how planets evolve, interact, and how life can come to exist on them. And someday, we may actually be able to study them up close! One can only imagine what we may find…

Further Reading: University of Chicago, Astrophysical Journal Letters

TRAPPIST-1 Is Showing A Bit Too Much Flare

It turns out that the TRAPPIST-1 star may be a terrible host for the TRAPPIST planets announced in February.

The TRAPPIST-1 star, a Red Dwarf, and its 7 planets caused a big stir in February when it was discovered that 3 of the rocky planets are in the habitable zone. But now more data is coming which suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 star is much too volatile for life to exist on its planets.

Red Dwarfs are much dimmer than our Sun, but they also last much longer. Their lifetimes are measured in trillions of years, not billions. Their long lives make them intriguing targets in the search for habitable worlds. But some types of Red Dwarf stars can be quite unstable when it comes to their magnetism and their flaring.

Our own Sun produces flares, but we are protected by our magnetosphere, and by the distance from the Sun to Earth. Credit: NASA/ Solar Dynamics Observatory,

A new study analyzed the photometric data on TRAPPIST-1 that was obtained by the K2 mission. The study, which is from the Konkoly Observatory and was led by astronomer Krisztián Vida, suggests that TRAPPIST-1 flares too frequently and too powerfully to allow life to form on its planets.

The study identified 42 strong flaring events in 80 days of observation, of which 5 were multi-peaked. The average time between flares was only 28 hours. These flares are caused by stellar magnetism, which causes the star to suddenly release a lot of energy. This energy is mostly in the X-ray or UV range, though the strongest can be seen in white light.

While it’s true that our Sun can flare, things are much different in the TRAPPIST system. The planets in that system are closer to their star than Earth is to the Sun. The most powerful flare observed in this data correlates to the most powerful flare observed on our Sun: the so-called Carrington Event.The Carrington Event happened in 1859. It was an enormously powerful solar storm, in which a coronal mass ejection struck Earth’s magnetosphere, causing auroras as far south as the Caribbean. It caused chaos in telegraph systems around the world, and some telegraph operators received electric shocks.

Earth survived the Carrington Event, but things would be much different on the TRAPPIST worlds. Those planets are much closer to their Sun, and the authors of this study conclude that storms like the Carrington Event are not isolated incidents on TRAPPIST-1. They occur so frequently that they would destroy any stability in the atmosphere, making it extremely difficult for life to develop. In fact, the study suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 storms could be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the storms that hit Earth.

A study from 2016 shows that these flares would cause great disturbances in the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the planets subjected to them. The models in that study suggest that it could take 30,000 years for an atmosphere to recover from one of these powerful flares. But with flares happening every 28 hours on TRAPPIST-1, the habitable planets may be doomed.

The Earth’s magnetic field helps protects us from the Sun’s outbursts, but it’s doubtful that the TRAPPIST planets have the same protection. This study suggests that planets like those in the TRAPPIST system would need magnetospheres of tens to hundreds of Gauss, whereas Earth’s magnetosphere is only about 0.5 Gauss. How could the TRAPPIST planets produce a magnetosphere powerful enough to protect their atmosphere?

It’s not looking good for the TRAPPIST planets. The solar storms that hit these worlds are likely just too powerful. Even without these storms, there are other things that may make these planets uninhabitable. They’re still an intriguing target for further study. The James Webb Space Telescope should be able to characterize the atmosphere, if any, around these planets.

Just don’t be disappointed if the James Webb confirms what this study tells us: the TRAPPIST system is a dead, lifeless, grouping of planets around a star that can’t stop flaring.

NASA Brings Trappist-1 Into Focus… Kinda Sorta

TRAPPIST-1 is probably the most well-known ultra-cool, or red dwarf, star. It is host to several rocky, roughly Earth-sized planets. Astronomers think it's no accident that ultra-cool stars and red dwarfs are host to so many smaller, rocky planets, and they hope that SPECULOOS will find them. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On February 22nd, 2017, NASA announced the discovery of a seven-planet system around the red dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. Since that time, a number of interesting revelations have been made. For starters, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) recently announced that it was already monitoring this system for signs of advanced life (sadly, the results were not encouraging).

In their latest news release about this nearby star system, NASA announced the release of the first images taken of this system by the Kepler mission. As humanity’s premier planet-hunting mission, Kepler has been observing this system since December 2016, a few months after the existence of the first three of its exoplanets were announced.

These observations took place between December 15th, 2016 and March 4th, 2017, as part of Kepler’s extended mission (known as K2). During this 74-day period, K2 collected data on minuscule changes in the star’s brightness, which were caused by transits made by the star’s exoplanets. And as of Wednesday, March. 8th, this information is now available to the scientific community.

Artist’s impression of of the exoplanets orbiting the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

These observations constituted the longest continuous set of observations of the star system to date. But in truth, the initial coordinates designated for this observation (known as Campaign 12) were set back in Oct. 2015, and did not focus on TRAPPIST-1. But as of May 2016, when the system’s first three planets were announced, the science teams adjusted their focus to observe them.

As Michael Haas, the science office director for the Kepler and K2 missions at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained:

“We were lucky that the K2 mission was able to observe TRAPPIST-1. The observing field for Campaign 12 was set when the discovery of the first planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 was announced, and the science community had already submitted proposals for specific targets of interest in that field. The unexpected opportunity to further study the TRAPPIST-1 system was quickly reconized and the agility of the K2 team and science community prevailed once again.”

While the data is raw and uncalibrated, it is expected to help astronomers learn more about this system of planets. In particular, it could help astronomers to place constraints on the seventh planet’s orbital period and mass (which are currently unknown). Additional information about the other six planets, particularly their size and mass, could also help astronomers make more accurate assessments about their composition.

Raw data from the K2 Category 12 survey. Credit: NASA/Kepler/K2 Campaign12

The magnetic activity of the host star, which is important in determining if any of its planets could be habitable, is also something that astronomers would like to learn more about. Last, but not least, the new data will help astronomers to prepare proposals for the use Earth-based telescopes next winter to further investigate TRAPPIST-1.

These proposals are due this month, and the timely arrival of this data ought to help research teams to refine their research objectives for next year. Any refinements made using this data will also help astronomer plan for follow-up studies using next-generations telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope. As Geert Barentsen, a K2 research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained:

“Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds. Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans. We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.

By the end of May 2017, the data will be fully processed and calibrated, which will also be made available to the public. As you can see from the images above, it was a little on the pixelated side! Still, we can expect some interesting finds to come out of this crowded star system in the coming months. Hopefully, some of that information will help us to determine if there’s any real chance of life forming there.

Further Reading: NASA, Kepler and K2

Volcanic Hydrogen Gives Planets a Boost for Life

Whenever the existence of an extra-solar planet is confirmed, there is reason to celebrate. With every new discovery, humanity increases the odds of finding life somewhere else in the Universe. And even if that life is not advanced enough (or particularly inclined) to build a radio antenna so we might be able to hear from them, even the possibility of life beyond our Solar System is exciting.

Unfortunately, determining whether or not a planet is habitable is difficult and subject to a lot of guesswork. While astronomers use various techniques to put constraints on the size, mass, and composition of extra-solar planets, there is no surefire way to know if these worlds are habitable. But according to a new study from a team of astronomers from Cornell University, looking for signs of volcanic activity could help.

Their study – titled “A Volcanic Hydrogen Habitable Zone” – was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. According to their findings, the key to zeroing in on life on other planets is to look for the telltale signs of volcanic eruptions – namely, hydrogen gas (H²). The reason being is that this, and the traditional greenhouse gases, could extend the habitable zones of stars considerably.

The habitable zones of three stars detected by the Kepler mission. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

As Ramses Ramirez, a research associate at Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute and the lead author of the study, said in a University press release:

“On frozen planets, any potential life would be buried under layers of ice, which would make it really hard to spot with telescopes. But if the surface is warm enough – thanks to volcanic hydrogen and atmospheric warming – you could have life on the surface, generating a slew of detectable signatures.”

Planetary scientists theorize that billions of years ago, Earth’s early atmosphere had an abundant supply of hydrogen gas (H²) due to volcanic outgassing. Interaction between hydrogen and nitrogen molecules in this atmosphere are believed to have kept the Earth warm long enough for life to develop. However, over the next few million years, this hydrogen gas escaped into space.

This is believed to be the fate of all terrestrial planets, which can only hold onto their planet-warming hydrogen for so long. But according to the new study, volcanic activity could change this. As long as they are active, and their activity is intense enough, even planets that are far from their stars could experience a greenhouse effect that would be sufficient to keep their surfaces warm.

Distant exoplanets that are not in the traditional “Goldilocks Zone” might be habitable, assuming they have enough volcanic activity. Credit: ESO.

Consider the Solar System. When accounting for the traditional greenhouse effect caused by nitrogen gas (N²), carbon dioxide and water, the outer edge of our Sun’s habitable zone extends to a distance of about 1.7 AU – just outside the orbit of Mars. Beyond this, the condensation and scattering of CO² molecules make a greenhouse effect negligible.

However, if one factors in the outgassing of sufficient levels of H², that habitable zone can extend that outer edge to about 2.4 AUs. At this distance, planets that are the same distance from the Sun as the Asteroid Belt would theoretically be able to sustain life – provided enough volcanic activity was present. This is certainly exciting news, especially in light of the recent announcement of seven exoplanets orbiting the nearby TRAPPIST-1 star.

Of these planets, three are believed to orbit within the star’s habitable zone. But as Lisa Kaltenegger – also a member of the Carl Sagan Institute and the co-author on the paper – indicated, their research could add another planet to this
“potentially-habitable” lineup:

“Finding multiple planets in the habitable zone of their host star is a great discovery because it means that there can be even more potentially habitable planets per star than we thought. Finding more rocky planets in the habitable zone – per star – increases our odds of finding life… Although uncertainties with the orbit of the outermost Trappist-1 planet ‘h’ means that we’ll have to wait and see on that one.”

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

Another upside of this study is that the presence of volcanically-produced hydrogen gas would be easy to detect by both ground-based and space-based telescopes (which routinely conduct spectroscopic surveys on distant exoplanets). So not only would volcanic activity increase the likelihood of there being life on a planet, it would also be relatively easy to confirm.

“We just increased the width of the habitable zone by about half, adding a lot more planets to our ‘search here’ target list,” said Ramirez. “Adding hydrogen to the air of an exoplanet is a good thing if you’re an astronomer trying to observe potential life from a telescope or a space mission. It increases your signal, making it easier to spot the makeup of the atmosphere as compared to planets without hydrogen.”

Already, missions like Spitzer and the Hubble Space Telescope are used to study exoplanets for signs of hydrogen and helium – mainly to determine if they are gas giants or rocky planets. But by looking for hydrogen gas along with other biosignatures (i.e. methane and ozone), next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope or the European Extremely Large Telescope, could narrow the search for life.

It is, of course, far too soon to say if this study will help in our search for extra-solar life. But in the coming years, we may find ourselves one step closer to resolving that troublesome Fermi Paradox!

Further Reading: Astrophysical Journal Letters

7 Questions For 7 New Planets

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s announcement last week of 7 new exoplanets is still causing great excitement. Any time you discover 7 “Earth-like” planets around a distant star, with 3 of them “potentially” in the habitable zone, it’s a big deal. But now that we’re over some of our initial excitement, let’s look at some of the questions that need to be answered before we can all get excited again.

What About That Star?

The star that the planets orbit, called Trappist-1, is a Red Dwarf star, much dimmer and cooler than our Sun. The three potentially habitable planets—TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g— get about the same amount of energy as Earth and Mars do from the Sun, because they’re so close to it. Red Dwarfs are very long-lasting stars, and their lifetimes are measured in the trillions of years, rather than billions of years, like our Sun is.

But Red Dwarfs themselves can have some unusual properties that are problematic when it comes to supporting life on nearby planets.

This illustration shows TRAPPIST-1 in relation to our Sun. Image: By ESO – http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1615e/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48532941

Red Dwarfs can be covered in starspots, or what we call sunspots when they appear on our Sun. On our Sun, they don’t have much affect on the amount of energy received by the Earth. But on a Red Dwarf, they can reduce the energy output by up to 40%. And this can go on for months at a time.

Other Red Dwarfs can emit powerful flares of energy, causing the star to double in brightness in mere minutes. Some Red Dwarfs constantly emit these flares, along with powerful magnetic fields.

Part of the excitement surrounding the Trappist planets is that they show multiple rocky planets in orbit around a Red Dwarf. And Red Dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Milky Way. So, the potential for life-supporting, rocky planets just grew in a huge way.

But we don’t know yet how the starspots and flaring of Red Dwarfs will affect the potential habitability of planets orbiting them. It could very well render them uninhabitable.

Will Tidal Locking Affect the Planets’ Habitability?

The planets orbiting Trappist-1 are very likely tidally locked to their star. This means that they don’t rotate, like Earth and the rest of the planets in our Solar System. This has huge implications for the potential habitability of these planets. With one side of the planet getting all the energy from the star, and the other side in perpetual darkness, these planets would be nothing like Earth.

Tidal locking is not rare. For example, Pluto and its moon Charon (above) are tidally locked to each other, as are the Earth and the Moon. But can life appear and survive on a planet tidally locked to its star? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One side would be constantly roasted by the star, while the other would be frigid. It’s possible that some of these planets could have atmospheres. Depending on the type of atmosphere, the extreme temperature effects of tidal locking could be mitigated. But we just don’t know if or what type of atmosphere any of the planets have. Yet.

So, Do They Have Atmospheres?

We just don’t know yet. But we do have some constraints on what any atmospheres might be.

Preliminary data from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c don’t have extended gas envelopes. All that really tells us is that they aren’t gaseous planets. In any case, those two planets are outside of the habitable zone. What we really need to know is if TRAPPIST 1e, 1f, and 1g have atmospheres. We also need to know if they have greenhouse gases in their atmospheres. Greenhouse gases could help make tidally locked planets hospitable to life.

On a tidally locked planet, the termination line between the sunlit side and the dark side is considered the most likely place for life to develop. The presence of greenhouse gases could expand the habitable band of the termination line and make more of the dark side warmer.

We won’t know much about any greenhouse gases in the atmospheres of these planets until the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) are operating. Those two ‘scopes will be able to analyze the atmospheres for greenhouse gases. They might also be able to detect biosignatures like ozone and methane in the atmospheres.

We’ll have to wait a while for that though. The JWST doesn’t launch until October 2018, and the EELT won’t see first light until 2024.

Do They Have Liquid Water?

We don’t know for sure if life requires liquid water. We only know that’s true on Earth. Until we find life somewhere else, we have to be guided by what we know of life on Earth. So we always start with liquid water.

A study published in 2016 looked at planets orbiting ultra-cool dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. They determined that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c could have lost as much as 15 Earth oceans of water during the early hot phase of their solar system. TRAPPIST 1d might have lost as much as 1 Earth ocean of water. If they had any water initially, that is. But the study also shows that they may have retained some of that water. It’s not clear if the three habitable planets in the TRAPPIST system suffered the same loss of initial water. But if they did, they could have retained a similar amount of water.

Artist’s impression of an “eyeball” planet, a water world where the sun-facing side is able to maintain a liquid-water ocean. Credit and Copyright: eburacum45/ DeviantArt

There are still a lot of questions here. The word “habitable” only means that they are receiving enough energy from their star to keep water in liquid form. Since the planets are tidally locked, any water they did retain could be frozen on the planets’ dark side. To find out for sure, we’ll have to point other instruments at them.

Are Their Orbits Stable?

Planets require stable orbits over a biologically significant period of time in order for life to develop. Conditions that change too rapidly make it impossible for life to survive and adapt. A planet needs a stable amount of solar radiation, and a stable temperature, to support life. If the solar radiation, and the planet’s temperature, fluctuates too rapidly or too much due to orbital instability, then life would not be able to adapt to those changes.

Right now, there’s no indication that the orbits of the TRAPPIST 1 planets are unstable. But we are still in the preliminary stage of investigation. We need a longer sampling of their orbits to know for sure.

Pelted by Interlopers?

Our Solar System is a relatively placid place when it comes to meteors and asteroids. But it wasn’t always that way. Evidence from lunar rock samples show that it may have suffered through a period called the “Late Heavy Bombardment.” During this time, the inner Solar System was like a shooting gallery, with Earth, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and our Moon being struck continuously by asteroids.

The cause of this period of Bombardment, so the theory goes, was the migration of the giant planets through the solar system. Their gravity would have dislodged asteroids from the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt, and sent them into the path of the inner, terrestrial planets.

We know that Earth has been hit by meteorites multiple times, and that at least one of those times, a mass extinction was the result.

Computer generated simulation of an asteroid strike on the Earth. Credit: Don Davis/AFP/Getty Images

The TRAPPIST 1 system has no giant planets. But we don’t know if it has an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, or any other organized, stable body of asteroids. It may be populated by asteroids and comets that are unstable. Perhaps the planets in the habitable zone are subjected to regular asteroid strikes which wipes out any life that gets started there. Admittedly, this is purely speculative, but so are a lot of other things about the TRAPPIST 1 system.

How Will We Find Out More?

We need more powerful telescopes to probe exoplanets like those in the TRAPPIST 1 system. It’s the only way to learn more about them. Sending some kind of probe to a solar system 40 light years away is something that might not happen for generations, if ever.

Luckily, more powerful telescopes are on the way. The James Webb Space Telescope should be in operation by April of 2019, and one of its objectives is to study exoplanets. It will tell us a lot more about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and whether or not they can support life.

Other telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), have the potential to capture images of large exoplanets, and possibly even Earth-sized exoplanets like the ones in the TRAPPIST system. These telescopes will see their first light within ten years.

This artist’s impression shows the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure. The E-ELT will be a 39-metre aperture optical and infrared telescope. ESO/L. Calçada

What these questions show is that we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Yes, it’s exciting that the TRAPPIST planets have been discovered. It’s exciting that there are multiple terrestrial worlds there, and that 3 of them appear to be in the habitable zone.

It’s exciting that a Red Dwarf star—the most common type of star in our neighborhood—has been found with multiple rocky planets in the habitable zone. Maybe we’ll find a bunch more of them, and the prospect of finding life somewhere else will grow.

But it’s also possible that Earth, with all of its life supporting and sustaining characteristics, is an extremely unlikely occurrence. Special, rare, and unrepeatable.

SETI Has Already Tried Listening to TRAPPIST-1 for Aliens

The Trappist-1 system has been featured in the news quite a bit lately. In May of 2016, it appeared in the headlines after researchers announced the discovery of three exoplanets orbiting around the red dwarf star. And then there was the news earlier this week of how follow-up examinations from ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that there were actually seven planets in this system.

And now it seems that there is more news to be had from this star system. As it turns out, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute was already monitoring this system with their Allen Telescope Array (ATA), looking for signs of life even before the multi-planet system was announced. And while the survey did not detect any telltale signs of radio traffic, further surveys are expected.

Given its proximity to our own Solar System, and the fact that this system contains seven planets that are similar in size and mass to Earth, it is both tempting and plausible to think that life could be flourishing in the TRAPPIST-1 system. As Seth Shostak, a Senior Astronomer at SETI, explained:

“[T]he opportunities for life in the Trappist 1 system make our own solar system look fourth-rate.  And if even a single planet eventually produced technically competent beings, that species could quickly disperse its kind to all the rest… Typical travel time between worlds in the Trappist 1 system, even assuming rockets no speedier than those built by NASA, would be pleasantly short.  Our best spacecraft could take you to Mars in 6 months.  To shuttle between neighboring Trappist planets would be a weekend junket.”

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

Little wonder then why SETI has been using their Allen Telescope Array to monitor the system ever since exoplanets were first announced there. Located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California (northeast of San Francisco), the ATA is what is known as a “Large Number of Small Dishes” (LNSD) array – which is a new trend in radio astronomy.

Like other LNSD arrays – such as the proposed Square Kilometer Array currently being built in Australia and South Africa – the concept calls for the deployment of many smaller dishes over a large surface area, rather than a single large dish. Plans for the array began back in 1997, when the SETI Institute convened a workshop to discuss the future of the Institute and its search strategies.

The final report of the workshop, titled “SETI 2020“, laid out a plan for the creation of a new telescope array. This array was referred to as the One Hectare Telescope at the time, since the plan called for a LNSD encompassing an area measuring 10,000 m² (one hectare). The SETI Institute began developing the project in conjunction with the Radio Astronomy Laboratory (RAL) at the UC Berkeley.

In 2001, they secured a $11.5 million donation from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In 2007, the first phase of construction was completed and the ATA finally became operational on October 11th, 2007, with 42 antennas (ATA-42). Since that time, Allen has committed to an additional $13.5 million in funding for a second phase of expansion (hence why it bears his name).

A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission)

Compared to large, single dish-arrays, smaller dish-arrays are more cost-effective because they can be upgraded simply by adding more dishes. The ATA is also less expensive since it relies on commercial technology originally developed for the television market, as well as receiver and cryogenic technologies developed for radio communication and cell phones.

It also uses programmable chips and software for signal processing, which allows for rapid integration whenever new technology becomes available. As such, the array is well suited to running simultaneous surveys at centimeter wavelengths. As of 2016, the SETI Institute has performed observations with the ATA for 12 hour periods (from 6 pm and 6 am), seven days a week.

And last year, the array was aimed towards TRAPPIST-1, where it conducted a survey scanning ten billion radio channels in search of signals. Naturally, the idea that a radio signal would be emanating from this system, and one which the ATA could pick up, might seem like a bit of a longshot. But in fact, both the infrastructure and energy requirements would not be beyond a species who’s technical advancement is commensurate with our own.

“Assuming that the putative inhabitants of this solar system can use a transmitting antenna as large as the 500 meter FAST radio telescope in China to beam their messages our way, then the Allen Array could have found a signal if the aliens use a transmitter with 100 kilowatts of power or more,” said Shostak. “This is only about ten times as energetic as the radar down at your local airport.”

A plot of diameter versus the amount of sunlight hitting the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, scaled by the size of the Earth and the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth. Credit: F. Marchis/H. Marchis

So far, nothing has been picked up from this crowded system. But the SETI Institute is not finished and future surveys are already in the works. If there is a thriving, technologically-advanced civilization in this system (and they know their way around a radio antenna), surely there will be signs soon enough.

And regardless, the discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system is very exciting because it demonstrates just how plentiful systems that could support life are in our Universe. Not only does this system have three planets orbiting within its habitable zone (all of which are similar in size and mass to Earth), but the fact that they orbit a red dwarf star is very encouraging.

These stars are the most common in our Universe, making up 70% of stars in our galaxy, and up to 90% in elliptical galaxies. They are also very stable, remaining in their Main Sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years. Last, but not least, astronomers believe that 20 out of 30 nearest stars to our Solar System are red dwarfs. Lots of opportunities to find life within a few dozen light years!

“[W]hether or not Trappist 1 has inhabitants, its discovery has underlined the growing conviction that the Universe is replete with real estate on which biology could both arise and flourish,’ says Shostak. “If you still think the rest of the universe is sterile, you are surely singular, and probably wrong.”

Further Reading: SETI

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