Exploring Extraterrestrial Worlds with NASA’s Webb Space Telescope: The TRAPPIST-1 System

During its first cycle of operation, the[{” attribute=””>James Webb Space Telescope will set its sights on the TRAPPIST-1 system, an incredible collection of seven rocky exoplanets 41 light years away from Earth.

Astrobiologists like Dr. Giada Arney from the " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">NASA Goddard Space Flight Center are excited about this system because TRAPPIST-1 is a perfect laboratory for studying habitability! It consists of seven rocky planets, distributed across the system’s habitable zone, or the area around a star where it is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface of surrounding planets. Webb will characterize the atmospheres of these planets and help scientists learn more about planetary formation and habitability.

See Part 1 of this video series.

Video transcript:

Well, TRAPPIST-1 is a really exciting system for James Webb to observe. It will observe TRAPPIST-1 at the start of its operating cycle.

And the reason astronomers are so excited about TRAPPIST-1 is because it’s a system of seven, you know, not just one or two, but seven rocky planets orbiting a very low mass star.

It’s really, really interesting because these planets are sort of a natural laboratory to study processes that might impact planetary habitability. And the reason is that some of the planets in this system are too close to the star to be habitable. They are probably too hot.

Some of the planets in this system are just the right distance from their star to possibly be habitable. And then at least one of the planets in the system is probably too cold to be habitable. If I had to guess, I’d probably guess it’s cold and freezing.

Thus, by studying all the planets in the system and comparing and contrasting their characteristics, we could learn more about how planetary habitability varies as you move further or closer in your distance from your parent star, as well that about the different processes that can activate or perhaps destroy habitability at different distances from your star.

It’s really, really exciting.

And all these planets revolve around the same star.

So we know that they are all formed together; they are all made from the same material; they all undergo the same processes of the star during their lifetime.

It is therefore a really very pleasant system to use for this kind of comparison.

And of course, we also want to search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of potentially habitable TRAPPIST-1 planets. And if we find things that will be really, really interesting because these low-mass stars like TRAPPIST-1 are, they’re very different from our massive Sun-like stars.

These low-mass stars tend to be… they’re really, really active. They produce a lot of high energy stellar flares. They produce a lot of high energy radiation.

So whatever the evolutionary history of these planets over time, it’s probably quite different from planets in our solar system simply because its star behaves so differently.

And so, it’s also going to be really, really interesting to compare the planets in the system to the rocky planets in our solar system and see, you know, how those planets are different, but also how are they the same?

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