The outer Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 might still harbour substantial amounts of water, suggest results of a new study. This includes the three planets within the habitable zone of the star, lending further weight to the possibility that they may indeed support alien life. To estimate whether there might be water on the seven earth-sized planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, the astronomers used observations from the Hubble Space Telescope – a project of international cooperation between European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. On February 22, astronomers announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the ultracool dwarf star 40 light years away. This makes TRAPPIST-1 the planetary system with the largest number of Earth-sized planets discovered so far.
For the new study, published in the The Astronomical Journal, the researchers examined the amount of ultraviolet radiation received by the individual planets of the system. “Ultraviolet radiation is an important factor in the atmospheric evolution of planets,” explained lead researcher Vincent Bourrier from Geneva Observatory. “As in our own atmosphere, where ultraviolet sunlight breaks molecules apart, ultraviolet starlight can break water vapour in the atmospheres of exoplanets into hydrogen and oxygen,” Bourrier said.
While lower-energy ultraviolet radiation breaks up water molecules — a process called photodissociation — ultraviolet rays with more energy and X-rays heat the upper atmosphere of a planet, which allows the products of photodissociation, hydrogen and oxygen, to escape. As it is very light, hydrogen gas can escape the exoplanets’ atmospheres and be detected around the exoplanets with Hubble, acting as a possible indicator of atmospheric water vapour. The observed amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by TRAPPIST-1 indeed suggests that the planets could have lost gigantic amounts of water over the course of their history. This is especially true for the innermost two planets of the system, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, which receive the largest amount of ultraviolet energy. “Our results indicate that atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets,” said the co-author of the study Julien de Wit, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
The inner planets could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years. However, the outer planets of the system — including the planets e, f and g which are in the habitable zone — should have lost much less water, suggesting that they could have retained some on their surfaces. Results showed that each of these planets may have lost less than three Earth-oceans of water. The calculated water loss rates as well as geophysical water release rates also favour the idea that the outermost, more massive planets retain their water, the researchers said.