Hubble provides first hints of water on nearby TRAPPIST-1 planets

Hubble delivers first hints of possible water content of TRAPPIST-1 planets

From the moment that seven Earth-sized planets were discovered in orbit around TRAPPIST-1-an ultracool dwarf star located 39 light years away-astronomers have been busy trying to learn everything they can about this intriguing star system, particularly its potential to foster life. The finding spurred a team of scientists to investigate the possibility of water-and thus maybe life-in the system.

Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, an global team of astronomers followed up the initial discovery, with observations to study that amount the amount of ultraviolet radiation received by the individual planets of the system, to ascertain the likelihood of water being present.

Bourrier said ultraviolet starlight can break water vapor into oxygen and hydrogen. We still aren't sure what kind of atmosphere - if any - surrounds the distant worlds, and it's unclear if red dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 are conducive to hosting habitable planets.

This study was led by the Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier from the Observatoire de l'Université de Genève. It is rapidly spinning and generates energetic flares of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

In February 2017, further study showed that there were seven planets, all rocky and of approximately Earth size, and hopes of extraterrestrial life grew.

Team member Dr Amaury Triaud, said: "Hubble's observations are of great significance, since they inform us on the irradiative environment of the Trappist-1 planets, notably on whether they can remain habitable for billions of years, like Earth has".

B and C, the two closet to Trappist-1, are the least likely to hold water, unsurprisingly. It's possible for Hubble to detect escaped hydrogen gas, which can act as a "possible indicator of atmospheric water vapor", according to the statement on the research. But at higher doses, extreme UV and X-rays heating the upper atmosphere of a planet pass on enough energy for the hydrogen and oxygen, which have been broken up by photodissociation, to escape. Calculations made by Bourrier's team suggests that the two innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST1-c, have lost enormous loads of water over the course of their history.

The level of ultraviolet energy projected onto each planet is important.

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.

The rate of water loss for the three planets in the habitable zone - e, f and g - is much lower, which may mean there could still be some liquid left on their surfaces.

TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c are already expected to lose as much as 20 times more water as contained in the earth oceans.

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