Research

Hints of water found on TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets

Hints of water found on TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets

After the February announcement of seven Earth-sized planets in one system, teams of researchers went to work to see what they could learn.

Following up on the discovery, an worldwide team of scientists led by the Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier from the Observatoire de l'Université de Genève, used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the amount of ultraviolet radiation received by the individual planets of the system.

During the research period, they studied the quantity of inward ultraviolet or UV radiation, received by each of the seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, and conducted a series of calculations for determining how this emission might be dominating the amount of water on each planet.

The hydrogen and oxygen gas molecules leaving the planet's atmosphere can be detected as a water vapor.

Professor Peter Wheatley, from the University of Warwick's Astronomy & Astrophysics Group in the Department of Physics, played a significant part in the project, measuring the X-ray irradiation of the planets by their parent star. A powerful enough telescope could then see it. They also looked for any hydrogen "escaping" from the atmospheres, since that detection would be an indication of water vapor. But what it can do is get a good idea of how much UV radiation is hitting the seven planets, and get a rough estimate of how much water that radiation would have bled away.

The inner planets, Trappist-1b and d may be in a runaway phase, and Trappist-1g may have lost over 20 Earth oceans worth of water over the course of 8 billion years, according to the study. But the outer five, including the three within the habitable zone could warrant a second look from the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

In observing Trappist-1, and calculating the water loss rates and the geophysical water release rates, the researchers found that some of the planets may have lost huge amounts of water as a result of the incoming ultraviolet radiation from their host star.

A new study may add another tick to the "yes, possibly" column. The James Webb Space Telescope promises to start revealing far flung worlds in greater detail when it launches next October (2018).

And the latest results from the Hubble Information Centre have suggested that the outer planets of the system may harbour floods of water, needed to support life. Yes, it's cooler. The problem is how close the planets orbit.

They are likely all tidally locked, meaning the same face of the planet is always pointed at the star, as the same side of the Moon is always pointed at Earth.

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