Seven Earth-sized planets entered the spotlight this year
Possibly life-friendly worlds orbiting TRAPPIST-1 fuel debate about what makes a habitable planet
Discoveries of planets around distant stars have become almost routine. But finding seven exoplanets in one go is something special. In February, a team of planet seekers announced that a small, cool star some 39 light-years away, TRAPPIST-1, hosts the most Earth-sized exoplanets yet found in one place: seven roughly Earth-sized worlds, at least three of which might host liquid water (SN: 3/18/17, p. 6).
These worlds instantly became top priorities in the search for life outside the solar system. “TRAPPIST-1 is on everybody’s wish list,” says exoplanet astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger of Cornell University. But the planets and their dim star have also stoked a raging debate about what makes a planet habitable in the first place.
Astrophysicist Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium and colleagues found the family of worlds orbiting the ultracool dwarf star, dubbed TRAPPIST-1 for the small telescope in Chile used to discover its planets.
“I don’t think the cachet of that system is going away anytime soon,” says exoplanet expert Sara Seager of MIT.
The TRAPPIST telescope team first announced in May 2016 that the star had three temperate, rocky planets. Staring at the system with the Spitzer Space Telescope for almost three weeks straight revealed that the third planet was actually four more — all Earth-sized, and three of them are in the star’s habitable zone, the region where temperatures are right for liquid water on a planet’s surface. A seventh planet was caught crossing the star as well, though follow-up observations showed it is too cold for life as we know it (SN: 6/24/17, p. 18).
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Similar but different
Planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 are a lot alike in some ways and distinct in others. The slideshow below shows each planet’s specs, including how long it takes to orbit the dwarf star, distance from the star (in astronomical units), and radius and mass relative to Earth.
The number of worlds alone makes the TRAPPIST-1 system a good spot to look for life. An alien observing our solar system would think Venus, Earth and Mars all fall in the habitable zone. But only one is inhabited. The fact that TRAPPIST-1 has so many options increases the odds that the system hosts life, Seager says.
As an ultracool dwarf, TRAPPIST-1 rides the edge of what counts as a star. Such stars burn through their nuclear fuel so slowly that they can live for many billions of years, which gives any life on their planets a long time to grow and evolve. This star’s habitable zone is also incredibly close in, offering astronomers many chances to observe the planets orbiting their star.
The three planets in the habitable zone cross in front of the star every 6.10, 9.21 and 12.35 days. If two or more turn out to be habitable, then they could share life among them, either by tossing meteorites back and forth or — in the case of spacefaring civilizations — by deliberate space travel.
Future space-based observatories will be able to see starlight filtering through the planets’ atmospheres, if the planets have atmospheres. Gillon and colleagues are looking for signs of escaping hydrogen, a signal that an atmosphere might be there. “We’re already preparing,” he says.
But ultracool dwarfs are also ill-tempered. They tend to emit frequent, powerful stellar flares, which could rip away a planet’s atmosphere, threatening any potential for life. The planet-hunting Kepler space telescope recently watched TRAPPIST-1 for 80 days and saw it flare 42 times. One of those flares was as strong as Earth’s 1859 Carrington Event, among the strongest geomagnetic storms ever observed.
But there are other promising systems. Recently, a similar star, Ross 128, only 11 light-years from Earth and much calmer than TRAPPIST-1, was found to have an Earth-mass planet, making it a better place to look for life, researchers reported in November in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
Whether such stars are good or bad for life is an old and open question (SN: 6/24/17, p. 18). TRAPPIST-1’s advantage is in its numbers. “We can check it, not just with one planet but with many planets,” Kaltenegger says. “You have hotter than Earth, like Earth and colder than Earth. If you wanted Goldilocks, this is the ideal scenario.”
TRAPPIST-1 is just an opening act. A bigger, more sensitive observatory called SPECULOOS is expected to be fully operational in the Chilean desert in early 2019, Gillon says. SPECULOOS will seek planets around 1,000 ultracool dwarf stars over 10 years. “We are at the edge of maybe detecting life around another star,” he says. “It’s really a possibility.”