TRAPPIST-1 System of Earth-Sized Planets Is 'Quite Old'

TRAPPIST-1 System of Earth-Sized Planets Is 'Quite Old'

All seven planets in TRAPPIST-1 could have liquid water under the right atmospheric conditions, but the three in the habitable zone are most promising.

The red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its seven known planets have been around far longer than the Solar System, according to a new study by scientists who have estimated the system's age.

The age of the star plays a crucial role in determining whether it can support life or not as older stars are capable of producing lesser flares than younger stars, and this quality makes the older stars more capable of hosting life. The lifetimes of tiny stars like TRAPPIST-1 are predicted to be much, much longer than the 13.7 billion-year age of the universe (the Sun, by comparison, has an expected lifetime of about 10 billion years).

The TRAPPIST-1 system, approximately 40 light-years from Earth, was discovered earlier this year through data returned by the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, along with observations conducted by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and several ground-based telescopes.

The Trappist-1 planets have lower densities than Earth, and large reservoirs of volatile molecules such as water could create a thick atmosphere, which would protect the surface from radiation, NASA explains.

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'Because of the onslaught by the star's radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the Trappist-1 system would largely be destroyed, ' said Harvard professor Avi Loeb. This is because low-mass stars take that long to contract enough to reach their ultimate sizes, slightly larger than Jupiter.

The fact that the planets are very close together has also raised the possibility of panspermia, or the spread of life between the different planets in the system. There is no day-night cycle on the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, one side experience a perpetual day, the other a never ending night, with a constant twilight zone between the two regions. Burgasser teamed up with Eric Mamajek, deputy program scientist for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to calculate TRAPPIST-1's age. "So our study went and looked at all the evidence on the star and got an age for it".

The star is barely larger than Jupiter and has just 8% of our Sun's mass. Burgasser and Mamajek estimate its age to range from 5.4 to 9.8 billion years. Our own solar system was formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

"Our results really help constrain the evolution of the TRAPPIST-1 system because the system has to have persisted for billions of years".

TRAPPIST-1 is now quiet in comparison with other red dwarfs, a trait consistent with its older age. These included the speed of the star as it moves in its orbit within the Milky Way (older is usually faster), the chemical composition of its atmosphere and the number of flares seen during observation periods.

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Although the planets survived the frequent flares that occurred during the star's early years, the impact of those flares on them remains unknown. It is rapidly spinning and generates energetic flares of UV radiation.

The equivalent of an Earth ocean may have evaporated from each TRAPPIST-1 planet except for the two most distant from the host star: planets g and h, they said. The closest sun-like star is tau Ceti, which also has four Earth-sized planets in orbit around it.

But Trappist-1's old age does mean that the planets in its system have soaked up billions of years worth of radiation that may have boiled off any liquid water and potentially even the planet's atmospheres.

Future observations with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and upcoming James Webb Space Telescope may reveal whether these planets have atmospheres, and whether such atmospheres are like Earth's. The latter is scheduled for launch in 2018.

However, old age does not necessarily mean that a planet's atmosphere has been eroded.

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The paper by Burgasser and Mamajek, titled "On the Age of the Trappist-1 System", has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is available online on the preprint server arXiv. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc.