Science

New data reveals high chances of extraterrestrial life in TRAPPIST-1 star system

Since the discovery of TRAPPIST-1 star system back in 2016, NASA and scientists all around the world have been excited as the star system located just 40 light years away boasts the best possibility of harboring life. Scientists have used NASA’s Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to examine the star system and have found that the planets in TRAPPIST-1 have rocky surfaces and some planets up to 5 percent of their mass in water, which is 250 times more than the oceans on Earth.

The form that water takes on TRAPPIST-1 planets would depend on how much heat they receive from their ultra-cool dwarf star, which is only about 9 percent as massive as our Sun. Planets closest to the star are more likely to host water in the form of atmospheric vapor, while those farther away may have water frozen on their surfaces as ice. TRAPPIST-1e is the rockiest planet of them all, but is still believed to have the potential to host some liquid water.

The question of the planets’ atmospheres is also important for understanding whether liquid water could be present on these surfaces — an essential ingredient for habitability. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has now surveyed six of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, and new results on four of them are published in Nature Astronomy. In the new study, Hubble reveals that at least three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets — d, e, and f — do not seem to contain puffy, hydrogen-rich atmospheres like the gas giants of our own solar system. Hydrogen is a greenhouse gas, and would make these close-in planets hot and inhospitable to life.

In 2016, Hubble observations also did not find evidence for hydrogen atmospheres in c and d. These results and the new ones, instead, favor more compact atmospheres like those of Earth, Venus and Mars. Additional observations are needed to determine the hydrogen content of planet g’s atmosphere.

Both studies help pave the way for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2019. Webb will probe deeper into the planetary atmospheres, searching for heavier gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, water and oxygen. The presence of such elements could offer hints of whether life could be present, or if the planets are habitable.

TRAPPIST-1 is named for the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered two of the seven TRAPPIST planets we know of today — announced in February 2016. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, in collaboration with ground-based telescopes, confirmed these planets and uncovered the other five in the system.

About the Star: TRAPPIST-1

TRAPPIST-1 is named for the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered two of the seven TRAPPIST planets we know of today — announced in February 2016. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, in collaboration with ground-based telescopes, confirmed these planets and uncovered the other five in the system.

The planets are orbiting a dwarf star named as Trappist-1. The star is only marginally larger than the Jupiter. The star is very small and cold, and hence the seven orbiting planets are temperate. The star shines very feebly, that is about 2000 times dim; when compared to Sun.

Illustrations so Far:

It is for the first time that so many planets resembling the size of the earth are found together that too around the same star. Since the planets are temperate than there are the chances of availability of water on them. The discovery plays a very important role in determining the possibility of life outside the Earth and our Solar System.

The discovery resembles the news of locating three planets around the same dwarf star that was announced in May 2016; now the difference is just the number has increased to 7.

The size of the planets differs from Earth in the aspect of 10% larger to 25% smaller. According to research, the three outermost planets preferably called as Trappist-1e, 1f and 1g are considered most habitable planets out of the seven that were discovered. However, Trappist-1f gaining the top-notch position even amongst the three.  The temperature of this planet is a slight difference on the colder side in comparison to Earth but with ample amount of Greenhouse gases and desired atmosphere.

The planets are only 40 light-years away from the Earth. It is the first ever rocky system in orbit alike our solar system is discovered. However,  the news has increased the anxiety in many researchers. Because, in any way, if the life-sustaining system can be successfully determined around Trappist – 1 then it will be the greatest discovery of the history of mankind.

Astronomers are analysing the data sent by James Webb Telescope to find the presence of alien life on TRAPPIST-1. “If these planets have atmospheres, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the key to unlocking their secrets,” said Doug Hudgins, Exoplanet Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “In the meantime, NASA’s missions like Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler are following up on these planets.”

“These are the best Earth-sized planets for the James Webb Space Telescope to characterize, perhaps for its whole lifetime,” said Hannah Wakeford, postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At Goddard, engineers and scientists are currently testing the Webb telescope which will be able to view these planets in the infrared, beyond the capabilities we currently have. “The Webb telescope will increase the information we have about these planets immensely. With the extended wavelength coverage we will be able to see if their atmospheres have water, methane, carbon monoxide/dioxide and/or oxygen.”
NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to better understand the universe and our place in it. We’re looking to answer age-old questions, like how did our universe begin and evolve; how did galaxies, stars, and planets come to be; and are we alone.

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