Sci-tech

Water may have been found on five Earth-sized planets

Water may have been found on five Earth-sized planets

It has been described as a mini solar-system, complete with seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a dwarf star over 40 light years away. "Naturally, this also depends on the age of the system", the team of astronomers explain in their report, and how much water the planets originally formed with.

An worldwide team of researchers, led by Vincent Bourrier from Switerzland's Observatoire de l'Université de Genève, used an instrument onboard the telescope called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to search for evidence of water vapor in the atmospheres of the TRAPPIST-1 planets.

Three out of the seven planets are in the habitable zone, the magical region where liquid water can theoretically exist.

However, a definitive answer on the TRAPPIST-1 water question will await the arrival of better telescopes.

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If the planets had little or no water to start with, the destruction of water molecules by UV radiation could spell the end of the planets' habitability. After the February announcement of seven Earth-sized planets in one system, teams of researchers went to work to see what they could learn. These can then escape as higher-energy radiation heats the upper atmosphere of a planet. As the ill-fated passengers of the Hindenburg would tell you if they could, hydrogen gas is very light and it likes to go up. After an extensive analysis, researchers now have concluded that the two innermost planets of the star system are more likely to as dry as a fillet, but the remaining five, three out of which are orbiting in the habitable zone of the star system, potentially hold large water bodies on their surface.

"Our results indicate that atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets", said co-author Julien de Wit, of MIT. "As in our own atmosphere, where ultraviolet sunlight breaks molecules apart, ultraviolet starlight can break water vapor in the atmospheres of exoplanets into hydrogen and oxygen". Especially hydrogen, which can act as a possible signature of atmospheric water vapor. While their results are not conclusive, the outer planets would have lost far less water than the inner planets, based on the amount of radiation they received.

While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the JWST, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations in all wavelength domains to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, and their potential habitability.

While the inner planets may have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water over their 8-billion-year life cycles, it seems the outer planets e, f and g - which lie in the habitable zone - may have lost much less, and, therefore, could still have some on their surfaces.


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