James Webb peers into TRAPPIST-1, a star system full of Earth-like planets

The James Webb Space Telescope has begun to look into the most tantalizing candidates for life elsewhere in the universe – a group of exoplanets in the star system known as TRAPPIST-1.

This means that in the coming years, astronomers can expect a wealth of data from a group of planets outside our solar system that help answer The age-old question: are we alone in the universe?

The web has shocked the world in recent weeks NASA released it first batch of pertinent comments Including the deepest infrared image ever taken of the universe.

While the telescope’s stunning and colorful images of distant cosmic objects capture the public imagination, it can be easy to overlook the wealth of raw data that the telescope is collecting and will continue to collect.

An artist’s impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system posted online by NASA in 2017. TRAPPIST-1 is one of the most occult groups of planets outside the Solar System that we know of.

Almost immediately after scientists were able to make observations, Webb began studying the TRAPPIST-1 system as a priority. TRAPPIST-1 is a red dwarf star located about 12 parsecs (39 light-years) away from our Sun and has interested astronomers since it was discovered in 2017.

This is because at least seven rocky ones have been found in TRAPPIST-1. exoplanets-Planets that exist outside the Solar System – orbit it with the same size and mass as Earth. What’s more, preliminary observations suggested that some planets may have temperatures low enough to hypothetically support the presence of liquid water.

“There are other planets that are terrestrial or temperate or both, but they are usually too far away or around a star that is too large to actually allow us to study them,” said Julian de Witt, assistant in Earth Professor, Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and part of the team that discovered the TRAPPIST-1 system newsweek,

“So these are the only windows we probably have into the environments of other terrestrial habitable planets, and that’s what’s really special about them.”

However, due to technical limitations we have so far been unable to detect one important feature of these planets: whether they have atmospheres or not. That is, until the web stepped onto the scene.

“The question we want to answer now is, do they have an atmosphere? If they have an atmosphere, things will get very exciting,” said Michael Gillon, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Lige in Belgium. TRAPPIST-1 system.

They told newsweek: “You really need a very large telescope that is far away from Earth, which you can monitor for hours or days if necessary, and which operates in the infrared over a large wavelength range [spectrum], because this is where all the molecular spectroscopic features we are looking for are located. And James Webb is exactly what I’m talking about.”

For De Wit, technological step forward Made with the web can hardly be overstated. “In terms of information content, we’re going largely from listening to radio to having television,” he said.

splitting light

The method scientists will use to find out if TRAPPIST-1 planets have atmospheres called transit spectroscopy, It works by collecting sunlight that passes around a nearby planet and splitting this light into a spectrum – just like a prism splits white light into rainbows.

If that sunlight passed through a planet’s atmosphere on its way to Earth, there would be telltale signs in the spectrum of that light.

“So you have traces of the chemical signature of the atmosphere that show up in your data and your spectroscopic data,” Gillon said.

James Webb Space Telescope
An illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope in space. The telescope, which was launched in December last year, has started scientific operations. Image license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

The research will be done in phases. First, Webb astronomers will find out whether any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets actually have an atmosphere—a huge development in itself.

Second, work will begin to find out what each of these atmospheres is made of. A process that de Witt described as “like peeling an onion”.

“The thing to note is that some are easily detectable because it has very strong characteristics, but it can be in very small amounts,” he said. “So we’ll start finding molecular features, that’s great. But then the next step is going to be enough data for us to start discussing how much is in it, and then we can also start extracting information about it.” as a function of temperature, altitude and pressure.”

Next, the Webb team can begin to provide details about surface conditions and the processes that could have led to the appearance of those atmospheric components in the first place.

“It’s like your favorite TV show, and you have to wait a week to go to the next episode,” de Wit said. “In this case, you may have to wait a year for the next episode.”

having gas

There are several atmospheric components that will be of interest to scientists studying the TRAPPIST-1 planets—water vapor may be the first to come to mind in the spring—but for Gillon, methane will be bigger.

“Methane, we know, has a very short lifetime,” he said. “In such an atmosphere, its molecules disappear very quickly. So if you have a large amount of methane in the atmosphere of one of these TRAPPIST-1 planets, which also has an atmosphere rich in CO2 or ozone, that would mean That’s a very big source of methane. And we don’t know a lot of abiotic sources, but we do know that life can produce methane.

“We think that before Earth’s atmosphere was very rich in oxygen, thanks to the rise of photosynthesis, Earth’s atmosphere contained large amounts of methane because there were few bacteria producing a lot of methane at the time.

“So if we detect methane that would be super exciting.”

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