Spectra of Four TRAPPIST-1 Planets
Spectra Offer Clues To Makeup of Exoplanets’ Atmospheres
These spectra show the chemical makeup of the atmospheres of four Earth-size planets orbiting within or near the habitable zone of the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. The habitable zone is a region at a distance from the star where liquid water, the key to life as we know it, could exist on the planets’ surfaces.
To obtain the spectra, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to collect light from TRAPPIST-1 that passed through the exoplanets’ atmospheres as the alien worlds crossed the face of the star.
The purple curves show the predicted signatures of gases such as water and methane that absorb certain wavelengths of light. These gases would be found in a puffy hydrogen-dominated atmosphere similar to gaseous planets such as Neptune. The Hubble results, noted by the green crosses, reveal no evidence of an extended atmosphere in three of the exoplanets (TRAPPIST-1 d, f, and e). Additional observations are needed to rule out a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere for the fourth planet (TRAPPIST-1 g).
The evidence indicates that the atmospheres are more compact than could be measured by the Hubble observations.
Hydrogen is a greenhouse gas, which smothers a planet orbiting close to its star, making it hot and inhospitable to life. The results, instead, favor more compact atmospheres like those of Earth, Venus, and Mars.
The exoplanets are members of a system of seven Earth-size worlds orbiting TRAPPIST-1, located 40 light-years away.