Scientists unravel the cosmic mysteries about TRAPPIST-1 by James Webb Telescope

This artistic representation of the TRAPPIST-1 red dwarf star showcases its very active nature. Credit: Benoît Gougeon, Université de Montréal.

Scientists have been studying a fascinating distant star system called TRAPPIST-1, located 40 light years away from us.

In this system, seven planets about the size of Earth revolve around a cool, dim star.

Some of these planets are in the “habitable zone,” meaning they could potentially support life as they are at the right distance from their star to have liquid water.

Scientists are using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to learn more about these mysterious worlds.

TRAPPIST-1 is smaller and cooler than our Sun, but it’s special because of its seven Earth-sized planets.

Discovered in 2017, these planets, especially the ones in the habitable zone—TRAPPIST-1 d, e, and f—have been the center of attention for scientists hoping to find life-friendly environments outside our solar system.

A peek into TRAPPIST-1 b

Researchers focused on TRAPPIST-1 b, the closest planet to the star, using a method called transmission spectroscopy.

They observed the starlight that passed through the planet’s atmosphere, looking for signals or “fingerprints” of molecules in the atmosphere, which could tell us more about the planet’s environment.

However, their observations were dominated by the effects of the central star, TRAPPIST-1, itself, making it challenging to study the planet’s atmosphere directly.

Challenging observations

Scientists found that features of the star, like dark spots and bright areas, as well as sudden brightening called flares, could influence what they see when they study the planet’s atmosphere. They called this influence “stellar contamination,” and it could create misleading signals.

If scientists don’t consider these effects, they could mistakenly think they have detected certain molecules in the planet’s atmosphere that aren’t really there.

TRAPPIST-1 b is very close to its star, receiving four times more radiation than Earth does from the Sun, and has a surface temperature between 120 and 220 degrees Celsius.

If it has an atmosphere, it would be the easiest to study among all the planets in the system. However, the observations suggest that there isn’t a significant atmosphere around TRAPPIST-1 b.

The research team conducted various models to explore possible atmospheric conditions, and they ruled out atmospheres rich in hydrogen.

However, they could not completely dismiss the possibility of thinner atmospheres made of water, carbon dioxide, methane, or a mix similar to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which has a dense atmosphere.

Despite these challenges, the research provides crucial insights for scientists and aids in refining observational techniques.

Understanding the stellar activities and how they influence observations is key in interpreting the data correctly.

This knowledge is essential when studying other potential life-supporting planets using JWST and will contribute to our broader comprehension of distant worlds and their potential to harbor life.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets have been a beacon of hope in the search for habitable worlds beyond our solar system. The study, despite its challenges, marks a significant step in understanding distant exoplanets and their stars.

By learning to interpret the signals accurately, and differentiating between the effects of the star and the actual atmospheric conditions of the planets, scientists are paving the way to unveiling the mysteries of the universe.

The exploration of these distant worlds fuels our curiosity and quest to find possible extraterrestrial life in the cosmos.

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Source: University of Michigan.