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First hints of water detected on Earth-sized TRAPPIST-1 planets

First hints of water detected on Earth-sized TRAPPIST-1 planets

Using these figures and other scientific research, the team concluded that six of the exoplanets nearest Trappist-1 "could have lost more than 20 Earth oceans" of water throughout their history.

By analyzing the data, collected by the Hubble Spacecraft, an global team of scientists has discovered that five Earth-sized planets from TRAPPIST-1 are likely to be full of substantial amounts of water, which may one day make them completely inhabitable for a human being. Furthermore, depending on photolysis, which is the separation of molecules by light, it's possible all of the planets apart from B and C harbor water above ground. The system, called TRAPPIST-1, is especially appealing because it has three planets in the habitable zone, meaning these worlds could potentially support liquid water and perhaps even life.

Following up on the discovery, an global 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.

This artist's rendition shows what the surface of a planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like.

"It is very likely that the planets formed much farther away from the star [than they are now] and migrated inwards during the first 10 million years of the system", Gillon told in an email. Scientists believe this water vapor is a result of intense heat caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The planets farther out should have lost far less water, approximately three Earth's oceans' worth each.

The TRAPPIST-1 system - named after the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope in Chile - was discovered a year ago.

The researchers caution that these estimates are limited on account of not knowing the precise mass of each planet. As they wrote in their paper, published in the Astronomical Journal, "ultraviolet transit spectroscopy is a powerful way to search for signatures of atmospheric escape from exoplanets".

It shows that "atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets", said Julien de Wit, co-author of the study and a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But we need to gather more information and actually see a hint of water, which we haven't found yet".

The level of ultraviolet energy projected onto each planet is important. "We are still a long way to determining the habitability of these planets, but our results suggest that the outer ones might be the best targets to focus our future observations".

"Our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope", says Bourrier.


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