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

Illustration of the TRAPPIST-1 planets

The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system a year ago generated a lot of excitement. This lies in the system's "habitable zone", which the study in Astronomy and Astrophysics refers to as, "the circumstellar region where liquid water could exist on a planetary surface". For each planet, researchers had to come up with a model based on the newly measured masses, the orbital periods and a variety of other factors - making it an extremely hard, "35-dimensional problem", Grimm said.

All the four studies were guided by Dr. Amaury Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Birmingham.

TRAPPIST-1 is named for the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered two of the seven TRAPPIST planets we know of today - announced in February 2016. A year on, we are reporting our results.

"Our next step is to find out whether the planet has an atmosphere, since our only method to detect the presence of biology beyond the solar system relies on studying the chemistry of an exoplanet's atmosphere". The planets' densities suggest that some could have up to 5% of their mass in water - which is 250 times more than the oceans on Earth. For b and c, for example, the authors say the options include "atmospheres dominated by water, nitrogen, or carbon dioxide; tenuous atmospheres composed of a variety of chemical species; and atmospheres dominated by aerosols".

The seven exoplanets around the star TRAPPIST-1, 40 light-years away, consist mainly of rock and potentially have more water than Earth, a new study has revealed.

TRAPPIST transit Hubble

Combined with data on their position relative to the star, the authors conclude that the non-rocky material in b is nearly certainly in the atmosphere-if it has any water, it's going to be in the form of water vapor, which would neatly explain its low density.

"A goal of exoplanet studies for some time has been to probe the composition of planets that are Earth-like in size and temperature", said Agol.

In September 2017, scientists with the help of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found that the outer Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 might still harbour substantial amounts of water. Then they tried to improve the measurements of the radii and masses of the near-Earth sized planets that revolve around the star. It all depends on how much heat they receive from it.

The data obtained rule out a cloud-free hydrogen-rich atmosphere for three of the planets. Last year, further observations showed that there are at least seven planets in the system, each roughly the same size as the Earth. This identification will be carried out by new observations.

As for what any of these findings mean for the future, NASA says it clears the way for the launch of its James Webb Space Telescope in 2019. "Eliminating one possible scenario for the makeup of these atmospheres allows the Webb telescope astronomers to plan their observation programs to look for other possible scenarios for the composition of these atmospheres". NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, in collaboration with ground-based telescopes, confirmed these planets and uncovered the other five in the system.

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Scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to scan four of the planets, finding that three are probably rocky and Earth-like, meaning it's more likely they could support life.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is going to be studied for a very long time.

In fact, the worlds orbit TRAPPIST-1 so closely, a person standing on the surface of one would have a spectacular view of the neighboring planets - some appearing in the sky larger than the moon looks from Earth. They may also be tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet is always facing the star, and each side is in perpetual day or night.

This artist's impression shows several of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.

What might these planets be like?

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"When we first found the planets we did not know what composition they had, or what they would look like", said Dr Triaud. In our own solar system, the Moon and Mars have almost the same density, yet their surfaces appear entirely different. TRAPPIST-1c also likely has a rocky interior, but with a thinner atmosphere than planet b.

TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets at about 30 percent the mass of Earth.

Planets closest to the star are more likely to host water in the form of atmospheric vapour, while those farther away may have water frozen on their surfaces as ice.

Scientists were surprised that TRAPPIST-1e is the only planet in the system slightly denser than Earth, suggesting it may have a denser iron core than our home planet. It is uncertain if it has a great atmosphere, ocean or ice layer. TRAPPIST-1e is a mystery because it appears to be so much rockier than the rest of the planets.

The study, carried out by an worldwide team led by the University of Bern, suggests that of the known exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), TRAPPIST-1e most resembles the Earth in terms of its size, density, and the amount of radiation that it receives from its star.

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