Earth-Sized Planets Forty Light Years Away Could Be Habitable

But it's possible that the planets were initially so rich in liquid water that, even with the water loss caused by UV radiation, they haven't dried up, according to one of the study's authors, Michaël Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liège in Belgium.

Earlier this year, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star, called TRAPPIST-1. Furthermore, depending on photolysis, which is the separation of molecules by light, it's possible all of the planets apart from B and C harbor water above ground.

The system's outer planets - including the three in the habitable zone - may have lost less than three Earth-oceans' worth of water.

Following up on the discovery, an global team of scientists led by the Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier from the Observatoire de l'Université de Genève, used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the amount of ultraviolet radiation received by the individual planets of the system.

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Bourrier says the exoplanets in this planetary system are ripe for further study, principally because they are relatively close and therefore brighter than many other potentially habitable exoplanets. The researchers believe the five remaining planets, including the three in the system's habitable zone - Trappist-1e, Trappist-1f, and Trappist-1g - have each lost much less water than the innermost planets and might still have some water remaining on their surfaces. At the same time, measurements of the amount of ultraviolet light hitting these planets allow scientists to estimate the rate at which their atmospheres are bleeding into space.

"The inner planets could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years", the scientists explain.

"Earth-sized planets can capture hundreds of Earth-oceans' worth of water when they form, but it's highly dependent on so many factors, and hard to say", Dr.de Wit said.

The TRAPPIST-1 system - named after the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope in Chile - was discovered previous year.

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Writing in the Astronomical Journal, Bourrier said: "What we found tells us that probably the [three] inner planets are not good planets to search for life".

"Our results indicate that atmospheric escape may play an important role in the evolution of these planets", said co-author Julien de Wit, of MIT. A powerful enough telescope could then see it.

"While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability", concludes Bourrier.

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