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Atmospheres and Densities Analyzed for Four TRAPPIST-1 Planets

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 01:43PM

Last year NASA announced the star TRAPPIST-1 had seven Earth-sized planets orbiting it with multiple inside its habitable zone. Naturally these planets have been more closely looked at since, to determine if any of the planets might be able to support life. Using several space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, we now know that three of these exoplanets do not have high concentrations of hydrogen in their atmosphere. This is important as it suggests their atmospheres could be similar to Earth's, as opposed to the atmospheres on gaseous planets like Neptune.

The four planets investigated were TRAPPIST-1d, e, f, and g, which are the four that exist within the star's habitable zone, though one is at the inner-edge of this zone. The habitable zone of a star is the area in which a planet could have liquid water on its surface, which is necessary for life as we know it. Being a dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1 is much smaller and colder than the Sun, so much so all of its planets, not just those in the habitable zone, are closer to it than Mercury.

To analyze the planets' atmospheres, the telescopes looked at them as they transited TRAPPIST-1, so the star's light would pass through the atmospheric gases. This would leave a fingerprint of the gases on the observed spectra of the light and from that we could determine some of the atmospheres' characteristics. In addition to studying their atmosphere, the densities of the planets were also better measured, indicating the planets are mostly made of rock and some may have up to five percent of their mass in water. That would be 250 times more water than the oceans on Earth.

More observations and analyses are going to be necessary to further understand these planets 40 light years away, and likely those discoveries will come from the James Webb Space Telescope that should be launching next year. This next telescope has been designed and developed to far exceed the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope, but it has only been because of Hubble and other telescopes that we know what technologies and approaches get the most information.

The embedded media are from the ESA Hubble website with one being a comparison of star habitable zones.


Source: Hubble [NASA], [ESA] and Spitzer

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