Scientists find evidence of water on TRAPPIST-1 planets

Delia Watkins
September 2, 2017

This gas can easily escape a planet's atmosphere, and because Hubble is an awesome space telescope, astronomers can detect hydrogen in the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets' immediate vicinity.

Water could be present on some of the Earth-sized planets orbiting the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, according to work from an worldwide group of astronomers.

Now, an global team has used the Hubble space telescope to estimate the chances of water on the planets - and the results are encouraging. For the observation of the TRAPPIST-1, researchers took more than three months and used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) aboard Hubble Space telescope. Lower-energy UV light can break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms on a planet's surface, while higher-energy UV light (along with X-rays from the star) can heat a planet's upper atmosphere and free the separated hydrogen and oxygen atoms into space, according to the study.

The inner planets could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years. Based on the new data, they've likely only lost about three Earth-oceans worth of water.

TRAPPIST-1 may be small and dim, but dwarf stars like it often emit powerful flares of radiation that could make water and life on its planets impossible without thick protective atmospheres. The study was led by Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier from the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and colleagues. The odds of water still being on these planets surfaces are slim to none.

The researchers caution that these estimates are limited on account of not knowing the precise mass of each planet.

The new research, published in The Astronomical Journal, may revive hopes somewhat.

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While TRAPPIST-1g, TRAPPIST-1f, and TRAPPIST-1e are expected to have water on their surfaces.

Why do planetary astronomers continue to think these worlds may have a lot of water? The results suggest that the outer planets of the system might still harbour substantial amounts of water.

"Our results indicate that atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets", said co-author Dr. Julien de Wit, of MIT.

The Hubble isn't strong enough to look for water.

"We can say the inner ones probably lost a huge amount of water, and the outer ones way less, allowing them to actually still have some water, if they captured it when they first formed".

"While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability", said Bourrier.

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