TRAPPIST-1 Is Showing A Bit Too Much Flare

Artist's impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

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
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 was announced.

Continue reading “NASA Brings Trappist-1 Into Focus… Kinda Sorta”

Volcanic Hydrogen Gives Planets a Boost for Life

Image of the Sarychev volcano (in Russia's Kuril Islands) caught during an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

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
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 –, CC BY 4.0,

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

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

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
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. It's a very active flare star. 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.

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

Three New Earth-sized Planets Found Just 40 Light-Years Away

Artist's impression of rocky exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light-years from Earth. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (

Three more potentially Earthlike worlds have been discovered in our galactic backyard, announced online today by the European Southern Observatory. Researchers using the 60-cm TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile have identified three Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away.

The star, originally classified as 2MASS J23062928-0502285 but now known more conveniently as TRAPPIST-1, is a dim “ultracool” red dwarf star only .05% as bright as our Sun . Located in the constellation Aquarius, it’s now the 37th-farthest star known to host orbiting exoplanets.

The exoplanets were discovered via the transit method (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) through which the light from a star is observed to dim slightly by planets passing in front of it from our point of view. This is the same method that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has used to find over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets.

Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.
Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.

As an ultracool dwarf TRAPPIST-1 is a very small and dim and isn’t easily visible from Earth, but it’s its very dimness that has allowed its planets to be discovered with existing technology. Their subtle silhouettes may have been lost in the glare of larger, brighter stars.

Follow-up measurements of the three exoplanets indicated that they are all approximately Earth-sized and have temperatures ranging from Earthlike to Venuslike (which is, admittedly, a fairly large range.) They orbit their host star very closely with periods measured in Earth days, not years.

“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the research paper. “The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System.”

Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star's habitable zone. Credit: PHL.
Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star’s habitable zone. Credit: PHL.

Although these three new exoplanets are Earth-sized they do not yet classify as “potentially habitable,” at least by the standards of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) operated by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. The planets fall outside PHL’s required habitable zone; two are too close to the host star and one is too far away.

In addition there are certain factors that planets orbiting ultracool dwarfs would have to contend with in order to be friendly to life, not the least of which is the exposure to energetic outbursts from solar flares.

This does not guarantee that the exoplanets are completely uninhabitable, though; it’s entirely possible that there are regions on or within them where life could exist, not unlike Mars or some of the moons in our own Solar System.

The exoplanets are all likely tidally locked in their orbits, so even though the closest two are too hot on their star-facing side and too cold on the other, there may be regions along the east or west terminators that maintain a climate conducive to life.

“Now we have to investigate if they’re habitable,” said co-author Julien de Wit at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life.”

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

Discovering three planets orbiting such a small yet extremely common type of star hints that there are likely many, many more such worlds in our galaxy and the Universe as a whole.

“So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets,” said study co-author Emmanuel Jehin.

The team’s research was presented in a paper entitled “Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star” and will be published in Nature.

Source: ESO, PHL, and MIT


Note: the original version of this article described 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (TRAPPIST-1) as a brown dwarf based on its classification on the Simbad archive. But at M8V it is “definitely a star,” according to co-author Julien de Wit in an email, although at the very low end of the red dwarf line. Corrections have been made above.