Is There Life In The TRAPPIST-1 System?

Looking for life on the Mars is so last year! Suddenly our Solar System and its measly four rocky planets look insignificant when compared to the nearest solar system TRAPPIST-1, lying only 40 light-years away! TRAPPIST has seven planets, at least three of which are considered to be habitable, thus justifying all the internet breaking hysteria around it!

So does any of the planets host any life? All seven planets in the system are thought to have the capacity to hold liquid water, but the scientists claim that three of them – 1e, 1f, 1g – have particularly the right atmospheric conditions which can hold oceans of water on their surfaces, which could already hold evolved life.

From left to right, TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g, and h. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Co-author of the study, Dr. Amaury Triaud told MailOnline that while this might be the case, the researchers cannot possibly speculate at the moment about what stage this life might be.

‘We only know the star is older than half a billion years and likely the planets are too, so far we do not know if there is liquid water and even less if there is life,’ he said.

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The team that came up with the TRAPPIST-1  discovery has already started using even larger telescopes from locations all across the globe to peek into the atmospheres of the planets and possible signs of life.

‘Several different molecules and relative make-ups of atmosphere will allow us to conclude that there is biological life present,’ lead-author Dr Michael Gillon, who is part of the team, said. ‘The presence of methane, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide are all strong indicators.’

The team estimates that it will take another decade before they can know about the existence of biological life on the planet.

Artist’s impression of the system/ NASA

Astronomer Professor Ignas Snellen from the Netherlands’s Leiden University, who was not involved in the study, claims that the newly found system has a great potential to host evolved life. She wrote in a Nature News and Views article,

‘In a few billion years, when the sun has run out of fuel and the solar system has ceased to exist, Trappist-1 will still be only an infant star. It burns hydrogen so slowly that it will live for another 10 trillion years, more than 700 times longer than the universe has existed so far, which is arguably enough time for life to evolve.’

How Life Would Look Like In TRAPPIST-1?

Assuming that any life can survive the star’s intense bursts of radiation, it might be quite different to our system. The Trappist-1 star is not young with its half a billion years age and its star (an ultra cool red dwarf)  is burning through hydrogen reserves at a slow pace. Beyond that, we know very little about the star and other characteristics like mass, radius, and orbits of the planets.

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If there is life, it is sure to present some glorious views on the surface of the planets. When looking from each planet’s surface, their “sun” would appear a salmon-pink color. And since the planets orbit very closely, they would be apparent in each other’s skies, just like the moon in Earth’s sky.

“The main barrier to life in a system like this compared to Earth is potentially UV radiation,” Jack O’Malley-James from the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in New York spoke on the issue. “It becomes potentially a limiting factor for what life can and can’t do on the surface of the planet.”

An artist’s impression of the surface of TRAPPIST-1d. NASA

Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute, added another dimension to the discussion,

“If the surface is a really bad UV environment, then maybe life on such a planet could develop biofluorescence,” said Kaltenegger. “That could be something you spot with a telescope on the surface, because when a unique flare hit the planet, it would light up in visible light that wasn’t there before… All of a sudden the planet could become green, red, or so on. It would be super cool to see.”

We would need very powerful telescopes to witness these events, but the likes of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most powerful telescope till date, will be launched in October 2018 and is a steady move towards developing a capability to study the planet’s atmosphere in infrared.

Artist’s impression of TRAPPIST-1f. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although we probably will have to wait for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in 2024 to witness something conclusive and substantial.

Nevertheless, exciting times ahead for the space enthusiasts and the world of science in large!

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