Some TRAPPIST-1 planets may have the right conditions for water


The dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is more than 39 light years from Earth and was discovered along with three orbiting Earth-sized planets in 2015. An worldwide team of scientists led by Vincent Bourier from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, used the Hubble Space Telescope to study how much ultraviolet (UV) radiation each of the seven planets would receive from their host star, which is much smaller and cooler than the Sun.

The researchers measured the ultraviolet (UV) irradiation that the planets receive from TRAPPIST-1, as these UV rays cause water molecules to break apart into their constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms - making them vulnerable to being driven off into space by the X-ray radiation from the star.

Water is just one part of the equation for habitability on the TRAPPIST-1 planets.

To arrive at the findings, the team used Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to analyse the amount of ultraviolet radiation each planet in the system was receiving.

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However, a definitive answer on the TRAPPIST-1 water question will await the arrival of better telescopes.

TRAPPIST-1 (so named because it was the first system of interest found by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope - TRAPPIST - project that searches the skies for exoplanets) first came to the attention of scientists in May 2016.

The hydrogen and oxygen gas molecules leaving the planet's atmosphere can be detected as a water vapor. It is orbited by seven Earth-size planets, according to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The team found that the planets within TRAPPIST-1 "could have lost big amounts of water over the course of their history". These can then escape as higher-energy radiation heats the upper atmosphere of a planet.

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It shows that "atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets", said Julien de Wit, co-author of the study and a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What's more, planets e, f, and g should be able to support liquid water at their surfaces given their location within the system's habitable zone.

The amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by TRAPPIST-1, does indeed suggest that the planets could have lost big amounts of water - more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water for the inner two planets alone during the last eight billion years.

"UV radiation is an important factor in the atmospheric evolution of planets".

"While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability", Dr. Bourrier concluded.

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