08Sep2017

Hubble Just Spotted Possible Water in Trappist

Source: NASA

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Science scientists first discovered the Trappist-1 system, they’ve been curious to find proof of water on one of their surfaces. Hubble might just have the answer they’re looking for.

 

Trappist-1 commonly refers to a dwarf star and its surrounding planets, which were discovered in February 2017. They’re about 12 parsecs, or 40 light years, away from our solar system, off in the Aquarius constellation. From studying the system, scientists think there are about seven planets orbiting the star. This system is very far away, but we’re able to learn a lot about it even with the distance.

Of the seven planets, there are three located within the “Goldilocks Zone,” or the area that is both close enough and far enough to potentially contain liquid water. Most of them are approximately Earth- or Venus-sized and have a rocky composition, making it the largest collection of Earth-like planets that we’ve discovered so far. This is all data that we can gather by watching their shadows pass in front of their star.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

Water in Space

Having three planets that are within the hospitable zone is exciting on its own, but the position of the system also enables us to see the light as it passes through the atmosphere of these planets. Slight changes in the light can help us determine what kind of climate the planets might possess. Scientists have been using the Hubble Telescope to study the planets and their potential environments.

Specifically, a team of astronomers, led by Vincent Bourrier from Sweden, have been using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to look at the system. The STIS can take the light that’s emitted from the distant star and analyze it. It can determine things like chemical composition of distant atmospheres, magnetic fields, the abundance of elements, rotation and temperature. This is the instrument, and the team, that have discovered the suggestion of water.

Water is weird. It can do all kinds of things other liquids can’t. One of those things is that it leaves distinct traces in the atmosphere of planets, including being broken by UV light into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a process called photodissociation. Meanwhile, the UV rays also heat up the atmosphere, allowing hydrogen atoms to escape the atmosphere and surround the planet. This cosmic chemical composition can be detected by Hubble.

What Bourrier and his team found was that these planets in the Trappist system do have high enough levels of UV light to cause this. The UV light is causing the water to break apart and allowing us to see the atmospheric water vapor. The difference is in the amount of hydrogen that’s being found.

The two innermost planets of the system appear to have the greatest hydrogen clouds, indicating that they have lost the most water. The outer planets, however, seem to have lost much less. The water, if it’s there, isn’t being broken down as quickly, so more water has been preserved. It’s important to point out that some of these outer planets with low enough levels of UV radiation include the three in the Goldilocks zone.

What It Means

For right now, it mostly just means these planets are interesting and that more research needs to be done on them. But since they’re 40 light years away and well-outside of our solar system, it doesn’t mean much for us in the immediate future. We still don’t know for sure if there’s water on these planets or not, and it may be a long time before we do.

But finding even a hint of water is exciting. As far as we know, water is one of the key ingredients for life. It’s not certain that it would be needed, but it’s beneficial to find it. It allows us to speculate on the rest of the chemistry that would allow life to form. And finding life on other planets would be the first step toward contact that could change our species forever.

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Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Science Writer

 www.schooledbyscience.com/about/  Contact: nicholsrmegan@gmail.com

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