Scientists say mysterious 'Holy Grail' system is best place to find aliens

Terry Joseph
February 7, 2018

Dr Amaury Triaud, from the University of Birmingham, a leading member of the worldwide team, said: "Of the seven planets, and of all the exoplanets that have been identified so far, Trappist-1e is the most resembling Earth, when we consider the amount of energy a planet receives from its star, and its density, which reflects its internal composition".

"We now know more about TRAPPIST-1 than any other planetary system apart from our own", said Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the new study.

"The more we learn about these planets, the more habitable they seem to be", Grimm said by e-mail.

All seven planets discovered in orbit around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 could easily fit inside the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet of our solar system.

Compared to our Solar System, the Trappist-1 family is very tightly-knit.

NASA made the ground-breaking revelation and announced the discovery of seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 - a star in a galaxy lying 40 light-years away from Earth - in February 2017.

The findings are based on data from NASA's Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes.

The TRAPPIST-1 planets huddle so close to one another that a person standing on the surface of one of these worlds would have a spectacular view of the neighboring planets in the sky. Imagine an ideal planet and it would probably look like that.

Some of the TRAPPIST-1 planets have as high as 5 percent of their mass consisting of water, according to the report.

Because it is so faint, the star's "habitable zone" - the orbital region where water can exist as a liquid - is much closer in than the sun's.

The first study, which appears in Nature Astronomy, looks at the atmospheres of several of the planets, but not directly. The research team identified 35 parameters and developed a new algorithm to estimate the mass of the seven planets. Instead, researchers have been looking at how much the planets pull on each other.

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"When we combine our new masses with our improved radii measurements and our improved knowledge of the star, we obtain precise densities for each of the seven worlds and reach information on their internal composition", said Triaud.

What might these planets look like?

At present, according to scientists, it is impossible to know exactly how each planet is. In our own solar system, the Moon and Mars have almost the same density, yet their surfaces appear entirely different.

Co-author Professor Brice-Olivier Demory, from the University of Bern in Germany, said: "Our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life".

- Trappist-1b, the innermost planet, probably has a rocky core and is surrounded by an atmosphere more dense than the Earth. One, it's likely that most planets start out with hydrogen-rich atmospheres, so this suggests these planets have evolved a bit. TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets - about 30 percent the mass of Earth. The second is that hydrogen is a potent greenhouse gas and, so, would have a strong influence on the planet's temperature. Though it doesn't have an ocean, ice layer or thick atmosphere, the fact that it is still slightly denser to our planet suggests it might share a similar iron core.

The other two papers, published this week, get into details about the planets themselves - analysing their atmospheres and the compositions. It is mysterious why TRAPPIST-1e has a much rockier composition than the rest of the planets.

One, Trappist-1e, stands out as being the most Earth-like in terms of its size, density and the amount of light energy received from its star.

TRAPPIST-1f, g and h might have frozen surfaces.

"This will allow us to search for heavier gases such as carbon, methane, water, and oxygen, which could offer biosignatures for life". The transits of the planets, combined with their distance from the star, gives us a measure of their size.

"As our next step we would like to find out whether the planet has an atmosphere, since our only method to detect presence of biology beyond the solar system relies on studying the chemistry of an exoplanet's atmosphere". They used the telescope observations to calculate the densities more precisely than ever, then used those numbers in complex simulations.

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