The red dwarf has seven alien planets the size of Earth, giving TRAPPIST-1 more potentially habitable worlds than any other star we know about.
The most promising place to search for life outside our solar system just got even more enticing.
Last year, a research team operating the ESO’s Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, or TRAPPIST, discovered that a small, dim red dwarf star about 39 light-years away had three planets orbiting it. All three exoplanets were about the size of Earth and in the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” where temperatures can hover between 0 and 100 degrees C—the ideal conditions for liquid water and, perhaps, life.
The team, lead by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium, eagerly turned more telescopes toward TRAPPIST-1, including NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Now, a paper published today in Nature reveals that TRAPPIST-1 has not three but seven Earth-sized planets, six of which are likely rocky, and all seven could possibly support liquid water.
“All of these planets are the best targets found so far to search for signs of life in the next decade, and it is remarkable that they are all transiting the same star,” co-author and MIT planetary scientist Julien de Wit told Popular Mechanics in an email. “This means that the system will allow us to study each planet in great depth, providing for the first time a rich perspective on a different planetary system than ours.”
A SOLAR SYSTEM THAT LOOKS LIKE JUPITER
TRAPPIST-1 is technically an ultracool dwarf star. This dim little star has only 8 percent of the mass of the sun, and temperatures are estimated around 2,550 Kelvin compared to 3,800 Kelvin for other red dwarfs and a scorching 5,800 Kelvin for our sun. In fact, TRAPPIST-1 is only slightly bigger than Jupiter.
Fortunately, the seven planets around TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their host star than we do. The star’s inner planets have orbits that resemble Jupiter’s Galilean moons. All seven orbit much closer to TRAPPIST-1 than even Mercury orbits the sun, allowing them to receive about the same amount of energy and heat as the Earth.
The planets also pass very close to each other as they orbit. According to NASA: “If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.”
Some of the planets are more optimally positioned to support liquid water than others. The star has been dubbed TRAPPIST-1A, and the planets, from innermost to outermost, are 1b, 1c, 1d, 1e, 1f, 1g, and 1h. TRAPPIST-1b, 1c, and 1d are probably too close and too hot for water. TRAPPIST-1h is probably too far away and too cold. But TRAPPIST-1e, 1f, and 1g are right in the middle of that Goldilocks Zone. For all we know they are veritable paradise worlds with rolling oceans and sprawling forests. (Okay, probably not, but it’s not impossible.)
That said, we know very little about these planets, almost nothing beyond estimates for their size, distance from the host star, and orbital periods. We can detect exoplanets when they transit their host stars, meaning they move in front of the star from our perspective and block some of the light that reaches our telescopes. From the resulting dip in the star’s brightness, we can deduce the presence of planets and even their size.