Our recent conversations about the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe emphasize how early in the search we are. Consider recent work on TRAPPIST-1, which draws on JWST data to tell us more about the nature of the seven planets there. On the surface, this seven-planet system around a nearby M-dwarf all but shouts for attention, given that we have three planets in the habitable zone, all of them of terrestrial size, as indeed are all the planets in the system. Moreover, as an ultracool dwarf star, the primary is both tiny and bright in the infrared, just the thing for an instrument like the James Webb Space Telescope to harvest solid data on planetary atmospheres.

This is a system, in other words, ripe for atmospheric and perhaps astrobiological investigation, and Michaël Gillon (University of Liége), the key player in discovering its complexities, points in a new paper to how much we’ve already learned. If its star is ultracool, the planetary system at TRAPPIST-1 can also be considered ‘ultracompact’ in that the innermost and outermost planets orbit at 0.01 and 0.06 AU respectively. By comparison, Mercury orbits at 0.4 AU from our Sun. The stability of the system through mean motion resonances means that we’re able to deduce tight limits on mass and density, which in turn give us useful insights into their composition.

Image: Measuring the mass and diameter of a planet reveals its density, which can give scientists clues about its composition. Scientists now know the density of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with a higher precision than any other planets in the universe, other than those in our own solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

Because we’ve been talking about SETI recently, I’ll mention that the SETI Institute has already subjected TRAPPIST-1 to a search using the Allen Telescope Array at frequencies of 2.84 and 8.2 gigahertz. The choice of frequencies was dictated by the researchers’ interest in whether a system this compact might have a civilization that had spread between two or more worlds. Searching for powerful broadband communications when planetary alignments between two habitable planets occur as viewed from Earth is thus a hopeful strategy, and as is obvious, the search yielded nothing unusual. A broader question is whether life might spread between such worlds through impacts and subsequent contamination.

What I’m angling for here is the relationship between a bold, unlikely observing strategy and a more orthodox study of planetary atmospheres. Both of these are ongoing, with the investigation of biosignatures a hot topic as we work with JWST but also plan for subsequent space telescopes like the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx). The gap in expectations between SETI at TRAPPIST-1 and atmosphere characterization via such instruments highlights what a shot in the dark SETI can be. But it’s a useful shot in the dark. We need to know that there is a ‘great silence’ and continue to poke into it even as we explore the likelihood of abiogenesis elsewhere.

But back to the Gillon paper. Here you’ll find the latest results on planetary dynamics at TRAPPIST-1 and the implications for how these worlds form, along with current data on their densities and compositions. Another benefit of the compact nature of this system is that the planets interact with each other, which means we get strong signals from Transit Timing Variations that help constrain the orbits and masses involved. No other system has rocky exoplanets with such tight density measurements. The three inner planets are irradiated beyond the runaway greenhouse limit, and recent work points to the two inner planets being totally desiccated, with volatiles likely in the outer worlds.

What we’d like to know is whether, given that habitable zone planets are found in M-dwarf systems (Proxima Centauri is an obvious further example), such worlds can maintain a significant atmosphere given irradiation from the parent star. This is tricky work. There are models of the early Earth that involve massive volatile losses, and yet today’s Earth is obviously life supporting. Is there a possibility that rocky planets around M-dwarfs could begin with a high volatile content to counterbalance erosion from stellar bombardment? Gillon sees TRAPPIST-1 as an ideal laboratory to pursue such investigations, one with implications for M-dwarfs throughout the galaxy. From the paper:

Indeed, its planets have an irradiation range similar to the inner solar system and encompassing the inner and outer limits of its circumstellar habitable zone, with planet b and h receiving from their star about 4.2 and 0.15 times the energy received by the Earth from the Sun per second, respectively. Detecting an atmosphere around any of these 7 planets and measuring its composition would be of fundamental importance to constrain our atmospheric evolution and escape models, and, more broadly, to determine if low-mass M-dwarfs, the larger reservoir of terrestrial planets in the Universe, could truly host habitable worlds.

Image: Belgian astronomer Michaël Gillon, who discovered the planetary system at TRAPPIST-1. Credit: University of Liége.

Thus the early work on TRAPPIST-1 atmospheres, conducted with Hubble data and sufficient to rule out the presence of cloud-free hydrogen-dominated atmospheres for all the planets in the system. But now we have early papers using JWST data, and the issues become more stark when we turn to work performed by Gwenaël Van Looveren (University of Vienna) and colleagues. While previous studies of the system have indicated no thick atmospheres on the two innermost planets (b and c), the Van Looveren team focuses specifically on thermal losses occurring as the atmosphere heats as opposed to hard to measure non-thermal processes like stellar winds.

Here the situation clarifies. Working with computer code called Kompot, which calculates the thermo-chemical structure of an upper atmosphere, the team has analyzed the highly irradiated TRAPPIST-1 environment, modeling over 500 photochemical reactions in light of X-Ray, ultraviolet and infrared radiation, among other factors. The results show strong atmospheric loss in the early era of system development, but take into account losses through the different stages of the system’s evolution. It’s important to keep in mind that a star like this takes between 1 and 2 billion years to settle onto the main sequence, a period of high radiation. It’s also true that even main-sequence M-dwarfs can show high levels of radiation activity.

The upshot: X-ray and UV activity declines very slowly in the first several billion years on the main sequence, and stellar radiation in these wavelengths is the main driver of atmospheric loss. Things look dicey for atmospheres on any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, and the Van Looveren model generalizes to other stars. From the paper:

The results of our models tentatively indicate that the habitable zone of M dwarfs after their arrival on the main sequence is not suited for the long-term survival of secondary atmospheres around planets of the considered planetary masses owing to the high ratio of spectral irradiance of XUV to optical/infrared radiation over a very long time compared to more massive stars. Maintaining atmospheres on planets like this requires their continual replenishment or their formation very late in the evolution of the planets. A further expansion of the grid and more detailed studies of the parameter space are required to draw definitive conclusions for the entire spectral class of M dwarfs.

Image: This is Figure 8 from the paper. Caption: Overview of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and the estimated habitable zone (indicated by the green lines, taken from Bolmont et al. 2017). We added vertical lines at the minimum distances at which atmospheres of various compositions could survive for more than 1 Gyr. Credit: Van Looveren et al.

Note the term ‘primary atmosphere.’ Primary atmospheres of hydrogen and helium give way to secondary atmospheres that are the result of later processes like volcanic outgassing and molecules breaking down under stellar radiation on the planet’s surface. The paper, then, is saying that the kind of secondary atmospheres in which we might hope to find life are unlikely to survive in this environment, although active processes on a given planet might still allow them. The paper ends this way:

Our conclusion from this work is therefore significant for terrestrial planets with a mass that is similar to the Earth’s mass that orbit mid- to late-M dwarfs such as TRAPPIST-1 near or inside the (final) habitable zone. For these planets, substantial N2/CO2 atmospheres are unlikely unless atmospheric gas is continually replenished at high rates on timescales of no more than a few million years (the loss timescales estimated in our work), for example, through volcanism.

I wouldn’t call this the death knell for atmospheric survival at TRAPPIST-1, nor do the authors, but the work points to the factors that have to be addressed in further study of the system, and the results certainly challenge the possibility of life-sustaining atmospheres on any of these planets. The Van Looveren work isn’t included in Michaël Gillon’s paper, which appeared just before its release, but I hope you’ll look at both and keep the Gillon available as the best current overview of TRAPPIST-1.

As to M-dwarf prospects in general, it’s one thing to imagine a high-radiation environment, with the possibilities that life might find an evolutionary path forward, but quite another to strip a planet of its atmosphere altogether. If that is the prospect, then the census of ‘habitable’ worlds drops sharply, for M-dwarfs make up somewhere around 80 percent of all the stars in the Milky Way. A sobering thought to close the morning as I head upstairs to grind coffee beans and rejuvenate myself with caffeine.

The papers are Gillon, “TRAPPIST-1 and its compact system of temperate rocky planets,” to be published in Handbook of Exoplanets (Springer) and available as a preprint. The Van Looveren paper is “Airy worlds or barren rocks? On the survivability of secondary atmospheres around the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” accepted at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint).