Too much water helps planetary habitability not one bit. And while we find the availability of surface water a useful way of describing a potentially habitable world, we’re learning that some planets may have water in such abundance that life may never have the chance to emerge. It would be a shame if the numerous worlds orbiting TRAPPIST-1 fell into this scenario, but a multidisciplinary team from Arizona State University is making a strong case for the prospect.
What’s wrong with water? Let Natalie Hinkel (Vanderbilt University) explain. Hinkel worked with ASU’s Cayman Unterborn, Steven Desch and Alejandro Lorenzo on the question of water composition in these worlds. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes to mind — “Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.” But in this case, there is plenty to drink, which is precisely the problem. Says Hinkel:
“We typically think having liquid water on a planet as a way to start life, since life, as we know it on Earth, is composed mostly of water and requires it to live. However, a planet that is a water world, or one that doesn’t have any surface above the water, does not have the important geochemical or elemental cycles that are absolutely necessary for life.”
Image: A nice visualization of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, here suggesting their relationship to the ‘snowline.’ As we’ll see below, what these planets are made of has implications for where they formed. Credit & copyright: NASA/Tim Pyle and Robert Hurt.
Not a good prospect, then, if the work of these researchers is any indication. What Unterborn et al. are saying in their paper in Nature Astronomy is that the TRAPPIST-1 planets are lighter than we would expect given our measurements of their mass and volume. All seven planets here appear to be less dense than rock. Remember, this is a transiting system, meaning we have constraints on mass and radius for all seven, allowing us to calculate density.
While low density worlds might well have a large gaseous envelope, the TRAPPIST-1 planets turn out to be not massive enough to hold onto the gas they would need to make up what Unterborn calls the ‘density deficit.’ If they somehow did hold onto the needed gas, they would be much puffier planets than what we see. The researchers argue that the low density component must be water, so the question becomes, how much water is there?
The numbers are daunting. Bear in mind as we look at them that the Earth, even with its magnificent oceans, is but 0.02% water by mass. Around TRAPPIST-1, the ‘dry’ inner planets b and c are likely to have less than 15 percent water by mass. Outer planets f and g are consistent with having more than 50 percent water by mass. These numbers will vary as we continue to constrain the masses of the planets, but the trend is clear enough.
“What we are seeing for the first time are Earth-sized planets that have a lot of water or ice on them,” said Steven Desch.
Which gets us to what planets like this can tell us about their formation and evolution. Planets with this much water — assuming water is the explanation for the density issue — should not have formed within the ‘snowline,’ that region within which water exists as a vapor and cannot be incorporated into a forming planet. Unterborn and team are clear on this point: The TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed beyond the snowline and migrated to their current orbits. Indeed, these planets must have migrated from a position at least twice as far from the parent star as they are now. Have a look at the graph below to get the idea.
Image: This graph shows the minimum starting distances of the ice-rich TRAPPIST-1 planets (especially f and g) from their star (horizontal axis) as a function of how quickly they formed after their host star was born (vertical axis). The blue line represents a model where water condenses to ice at 170 K, as in our solar system’s planet-forming disk. The red line applies to water condensing to ice at 212 K, appropriate to the TRAPPIST-1 disk. If planets formed quickly, they must have formed farther away (and migrated in a greater distance) to contain significant ice. Because TRAPPIST-1 dims over time, if the planets formed later, they could have formed closer to the host star and still be ice-rich. Credit: Unterborn et al. / ASU.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen migration discussed in relation to TRAPPIST-1. Simon Grimm (University of Bern Centre for Space and Habitability) and colleagues have looked at migration, noting that the resonant orbits here — the planets form a single resonant chain — is an indication of a slow migration consistent with the current perceived stability.
Other researchers have likewise addressed migration, including Chris Ormel (University of Amsterdam) and team, who look at planetary formation at the snowline itself in what they call a ‘resonant convoy,’ with the outer planets ‘pushing’ on the inner ones. So the idea of migration at TRAPPIST-1 is not new. What is new in the Unterborn et al. work is the use of planetary composition to add weight to the overall case for migration, which allows the team to quantify how much migration actually took place.
We’ve lucked out when it comes to nearby red dwarfs. TRAPPIST-1 will clearly be a primary source of data for red dwarf planets as we address the issue of habitability that their density and formation history implies. And then there’s that intriguing planet around Proxima Centauri…
The paper is Unterborn et al., “Inward migration of the TRAPPIST-1 planets as inferred from their water-rich compositions,” Nature Astronomy 19 March 2018 (abstract). The Grimm paper is Grimm et al., “The nature of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets,” in press at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint). The Ormel paper is Ormel et al., “Formation of Trappist-1 and other compact systems,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 604 (August 2017) (abstract).