A closely packed planetary system like the one we’ve found at TRAPPIST-1 offers intriguing SETI possibilities. Here a SETI search for directed radio transmissions aimed at the Earth gives way to an attempt to overhear ongoing activity within another stellar system. For it’s hard to conceive of any civilization developing technological skills that would turn away from the chance to make the comparatively short crossing from one of the TRAPPIST-1 worlds to another.

Our more spread out system is challenging for a species at our level of technological development, but a colony on Mars or an outpost on Titan would surely produce intense radio traffic as it went about daily operations and reported back to Earth. Could TRAPPIST-1 be home to similar activities? The SETI Institute has continued to investigate the prospect, starting with ‘eavesdropping’ observations at 2.84 and 8.2 GHz in early April.


Image: A size comparison of the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, lined up in order of increasing distance from their host star. The planetary surfaces are portrayed with an artist’s impression of their potential surface features, including water, ice, and atmospheres. Credit:
NASA/R. Hurt/T. Pyle.

The SETI Institute’s work demands that the Allen Telescope Array be used in what this Institute news release calls ‘camera mode,’ which creates a series of ‘snapshots’ of the field of view every 10 seconds. The method is sensitive to the kind of broadband signals that might be used in spacecraft propulsion (think of the power beaming we’ve discussed often in these pages for getting payloads quickly to Mars and other local targets). The Benfords’ ideas on such a beaming infrastructure are examined in Microwave Beaming: A Fast Sail to Mars, while power beaming as a SETI observable is examined in Seeing Alien Power Beaming and elsewhere.

If a civilization were to be communicating between two worlds in the TRAPPIST-1 system, the time to observe its activities would be when two of the planets align with our view from Earth. It was just such an opportunity, between planets e and f in this system, that the ATA examined on April 6, while another two conjunctions occurred just six days later and were also observed by the ATA. If powerful transmissions were directed from one planet to the other, it might be possible for us to detect the spillover as the beam points toward the destination planet.

Similar observations are planned for May, looking for wideband signals much different from the kind of narrowband beacons the SETI Institute normally hopes to detect. Communications signals would doubtless carry a high data rate, while the broadband signals used in power beaming should likewise be distinctive. The raw data from these observations is being searched by high speed cloud computers, a computationally intensive task that is too expensive for the ATA to perform daily, but one that is assisted by its collaboration with IBM.

Refining Mass Information

While we follow the SETI search here with interest, it’s also worth noting that we’re getting a much tighter set of parameters on the masses of the planets around TRAPPIST-1. These are small worlds, but their proximity means we see substantial transit timing variations in the system. The masses calculated by Michaël Gillon and colleagues in the discovery paper from transit timing variation analysis produced masses for the six inner planets with uncertainties that varied between 30 percent and almost 100 percent.

Tightening up those numbers is the subject of a new paper from Songhu Wang (Yale University) and colleagues, who analyze data from the Kepler spacecraft’s K2 mission to refine the transit timing measurements. Several planets are much better constrained:

Perhaps the most significant conclusion that emerges from our analysis is that the masses of the outer planets, d, e, f, and g all show noticeable decreases in comparison to the values reported by Gillon et al. (2017). For example, the masses of planets e, f, and g (which have equilibrium temperatures of 251 K, 219 K, and 199 K, respectively) have decreased from Me = 0.62 M?, Mf = 0.68 M? and Mg = 1.34 M? to Me = 0.24 M?, Mf = 0.36 M? and Mg = 0.57 M?.

Reading through this paper simply reinforces how useful the planets around TRAPPIST-1 are proving to be — the authors say that they “…arguably constitute the most important exoplanetary system yet discovered.” The reason: We have large transit depths given the small size of the host star, along with extensive transit timing variations, meaning our ability to delve into mass, density and planetary composition here is greatly enhanced. And note this, which is based on the paper’s Figure 5 (not Figure 4, as is mistakenly referenced in the preprint):

…to within the errors of our determinations – the four most distant planets are consistent with pure water compositions, and in any event, are substantially less dense [than] either Mars or Venus.

Screenshot from 2017-04-25 08-53-02

Image: Figure 5 from Songhu Wang et al.. Caption: Planetary masses and radii for Trappist-1 system. Transit timing-inferred masses from the discovery paper (yellow dots) and this work (blue dots) are plotted with 1 ? error bars. Venus, Mars and, Earth are shown as black dots. Theoretical mass-radius relationships for different planetary compositions from Zeng et al. (2016) are plotted as colored curves. Credit: Songhu Wang et al.

The paper is Songhu Wang et al., “Updated Masses for the TRAPPIST-1 Planets,” submitted to the Astrophysical Journal (preprint).