In 1999, scientists discovered TRAPPIST-1, a red dwarf star with a family of seven rocky planets 40 light-years away. This discovery represented a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe and the potential for life beyond Earth.
Today, we share the secrets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, its habitability, and what living in one of its worlds would be like.
James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has revolutionized our ability to study distant worlds (ref). With its Near Infrared Spectrograph and Mid-Infrared Instrument, the JWST can analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, identifying their composition and temperatures.
Its powerful infrared camera penetrates thick cloud cover, revealing the geology of these distant worlds.
But TRAPPIST-1 (ref), an M-type red dwarf, poses unique challenges. Its frequent, powerful flares make studying the planets’ atmospheres difficult. Yet, the JWST’s unprecedented precision offers hope for discoveries.
TRAPPIST-1 is one of the smallest known M dwarfs, emitting less than half the temperature of the sun’s surface. At 7.6 billion years old, it’s about 3 billion years older than the sun, which is good news for potential life as older red dwarfs flare less frequently.
However, its youthful flares might have already stripped away the planets’ atmospheres.
Despite these challenges, the JWST can probe the atmospheres of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, offering a unique opportunity to learn what kinds of worlds they are and their potential to support life.
The Inner Worlds: TRAPPIST-1b & 1c
TRAPPIST-1b and 1c, the innermost planets, are scorching worlds with surface temperatures reaching 450°F and 225°F, respectively.
Recent observations suggest that TRAPPIST-1b might be a bare rock with a very thin or non-existent atmosphere (ref), while TRAPPIST-1c, previously thought to resemble Venus, lacks a thick atmosphere.
These harsh conditions make them unlikely candidates for life as we know it.
TRAPPIST-1d: A World of Water & Mystery
TRAPPIST-1d, a planet with 30% of the mass of Earth and 80% of its radius, receives a similar amount of solar radiation as Earth.
Intriguingly, it could harbor 250 times more water than our planet (ref).
Its habitability hinges on factors like albedo and tidal heat flux, which could create conditions suitable for life. Scientists speculate that TRAPPIST-1d might be a global ocean world where life could thrive in its vast, chemically rich waters (ref).
TRAPPIST-1e: The Most Earth-like of them All
Among the seven, TRAPPIST-1e stands out as the most promising for life (ref). With a dense, possibly rocky composition and location within the habitable zone, it could hold a thick, oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Its climate might be strikingly similar to Earth’s, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a world where humans could potentially thrive.
Living on TRAPPIST-1e would be an adventure beyond imagination. With a year lasting about 6.1 Earth days and a tidally locked orientation (ref), one side of the planet would always face the star, creating a perpetual twilight zone.
The sky would be painted reddish, and the other six planets would loom large, visible as moons. However, life here would not be without its challenges.
Frequent solar flares from the red dwarf star would necessitate advanced technology and infrastructure to ensure survival.
The Outer Planets: Frozen Worlds with Hidden Secrets
TRAPPIST-1f, g, and h, the outermost planets, are much cooler and likely ice-covered (ref).
TRAPPIST-1g, with its significant mass, might retain an atmosphere and possibly harbor a subsurface ocean. These worlds remind us of the diversity and mystery that await us in the cosmos.
A Future of Discovery & Wonder
The TRAPPIST-1 system, with its seven intriguing worlds, offers a unique opportunity to understand the potential for life beyond our solar system.
As the JWST continues to peer into the depths of space, we can expect to uncover more secrets and perhaps even find evidence of life.
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.