Is There Life in the TRAPPIST-1 Star System? – “Twice as Old as Our Solar System”


TRAPPIST-1 Star System


Could one of the seven tightly packed planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system be the first exoplanet where the James Webb Space Telescope detects unmistakable signs of life? Life may be possible if these planets had more water initially than Earth, Venus, or Mars, said  astrobiologist Andrew Lincowski at the University of Washington, about a nearby star and planetary system called TRAPPIST-1, first Discovered in 2016 some 40 light-years away.

Very Cool M-Dwarf Star

The host star is a very cool red M-dwarf that can barely fuse hydrogen in its core. It has 9% the mass, 12% the radius, and only 0.06% the luminosity of our yellow Sun. 

The M-dwarf star, in the Aquarius constellation –named after the ground-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, the facility that first found evidence of planets around it in 2015– is orbited by seven temperate planets similar in size and mass to Earth, of which three show particular potential for habitability, receiving about as much energy from their host star as the Earth receives from the Sun.

“If planet TRAPPIST-1 e did not lose all of its water during the early phase,” explains Lincowski, “today it could be a water world, completely covered by a global ocean. In this case, it could have a climate similar to Earth.”

Lincowski said this 2018 research was done more with an eye on climate evolution than to judge the planets’ habitability. He plans future research focusing more directly on modeling water planets and their chances for life.

TRAPPIST-1 Star System is the Ultimate James Webb Space Telescope Target

“This is a whole sequence of planets that can give us insight into the evolution of planets, in particular around a star that’s very different from ours, with different light coming off of it,” said Lincowski. “It’s just a gold mine.”

Not all stars are like the sun, so not all planetary systems can be studied with the same expectations. New research from a University of Washington-led team of astronomers gives updated climate models for the seven planets around the star TRAPPIST-1.

The work also could help astronomers more effectively study planets around stars unlike our sun, and better use the limited, expensive resources of the James Webb Space Telescope that launched less than two months ago.

“We are modeling unfamiliar atmospheres, not just assuming that the things we see in the solar system will look the same way around another star,” said Lincowski, UW doctoral student and lead author of a paper published in Astrophysical Journal. “We conducted this research to show what these different types of atmospheres could look like.”

An Earth-like Ocean World?

The team found that due to an extremely hot, bright early stellar phase, all seven of the star’s tightly packed worlds may have evolved like Venus, with any early oceans they may have had evaporating and leaving dense, uninhabitable atmospheres. However, one planet, TRAPPIST-1 e, could be an Earth-like ocean world worth further study, as previous research also has indicated.

TRAPPIST-1, 39 light-years or about 235 trillion miles away, is about as small as a star can be and still be a star. A relatively cool “M dwarf” star — the most common type in the universe — it has about 9 percent the mass of the sun and about 12 percent its radius. TRAPPIST-1 has a radius only a little bigger than the planet Jupiter, though it is much greater in mass.

All seven of TRAPPIST-1’s planets are about the size of Earth and three of them — planets labeled e, f and g — are believed to be in its habitable zone, that swath of space around a star where a rocky planet could have liquid water on its surface, thus giving life a chance. TRAPPIST-1 d rides the inner edge of the habitable zone, while farther out, TRAPPIST-1 h, orbits just past that zone’s outer edge.

Previous papers have modeled TRAPPIST-1 worlds, Lincowski said, but he and this research team “tried to do the most rigorous physical modeling that we could in terms of radiation and chemistry — trying to get the physics and chemistry as right as possible.”

The team’s radiation and chemistry models create spectral, or wavelength, signatures for each possible atmospheric gas, enabling observers to better predict where to look for such gasses in exoplanet atmospheres. Lincowski said when traces of gasses are actually detected by the Webb telescope, or others, some day, “astronomers will use the observed bumps and wiggles in the spectra to infer which gasses are present — and compare that to work like ours to say something about the planet’s composition, environment and perhaps its evolutionary history.”

He said people are used to thinking about the habitability of a planet around stars similar to the sun. “But M dwarf stars are very different, so you really have to think about the chemical effects on the atmosphere(s) and how that chemistry affects the climate.”

Combining terrestrial climate modeling with photochemistry models, the researchers simulated environmental states for each of TRAPPIST-1’s worlds.

Fast Facts About Exoplanets

Their modeling indicates that:

TRAPPIST-1 b, the closest to the star, is a blazing world too hot even for clouds of sulfuric acid, as on Venus, to form.

Planets c and d receive slightly more energy from their star than Venus and Earth do from the sun and could be Venus-like, with a dense, uninhabitable atmosphere.

TRAPPIST-1 e is the most likely of the seven to host liquid water on a temperate surface, and would be an excellent choice for further study with habitability in mind.

The outer planets f, g and h could be Venus-like or could be frozen, depending on how much water formed on the planet during its evolution.

Like Venus Today?

Lincowski said that in actuality, any or all of TRAPPIST-1’s planets could be Venus-like, with any water or oceans long burned away. He explained that when water evaporates from a planet’s surface, ultraviolet light from the star breaks apart the water molecules, releasing hydrogen, which is the lightest element and can escape a planet’s gravity. This could leave behind a lot of oxygen, which could remain in the atmosphere and irreversibly remove water from the planet. Such a planet may have a thick oxygen atmosphere — but not one generated by life, and different from anything yet observed.

“This may be possible if these planets had more water initially than Earth, Venus, or Mars,” he said. “If planet TRAPPIST-1 e did not lose all of its water during this phase, today it could be a water world, completely covered by a global ocean. In this case, it could have a climate similar to Earth.”

The Ocean Galaxy -Many of Milky Way’s 4,000 Known Exoplanets May Be Water Worlds

“Before we knew of this planetary system, estimates for the detectability of atmospheres for Earth-sized planets were looking much more difficult,” said co-author Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, a UW astrobiologist..

The star being so small, he said, will make the signatures of gasses (like carbon dioxide) in the planets’ atmospheres more pronounced in telescope data.

“Our work informs the scientific community of what we might expect to see for the TRAPPIST-1 planets with the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Lincowski’s other UW co-author is Victoria Meadows, professor of astronomy and director of the UW’s Astrobiology Program. Meadows is also principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, based at the UW. All of the authors were affiliates of that research laboratory.

“The processes that shape the evolution of a terrestrial planet are critical to whether or not it can be habitable, as well as our ability to interpret possible signs of life,” Meadows said. “This paper suggests that we may soon be able to search for potentially detectable signs of these processes on alien worlds.”

The Last Word

“A lot of the habitability and terrestrial exoplanet community has focused on the TRAPPIST-1 system,” Andrew Lincowski  wrote in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “The earlier atmospheric escape papers suggested the planets could all lose their atmospheres. Still, the planets appear to generally have lower density (Agol et al 2021), and so could have a higher likelihood of producing a “secondary” atmosphere, one that outgassed later, like the Earth has. Much climate modeling by a variety of model types has focused on this system, and the general consensus would support that TRAPPIST-1 e, if it was able to outgas or maintain an atmosphere, could be roughly Earth-like and habitable, and could maintain an ocean on the surface.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about James Webb Space Telescope,” Lincowski concludes. “We will need many more observations of these planets than are currently scheduled to determine anything definitive. So stay tuned!”

Image at the top of the page is an artist’s depiction of the TRAPPIST-1 star and its seven worlds: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Maxwell Moe, astrophysicist, NASA Einstein Fellow, University of Arizona via Andrew Lincowski and University of Washington

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