Figuring out the composition of these planets is important in determining whether they could support alien life. But it's tricky to analyze them. For starters, the system is 39 light-years away, and sending a spacecraft there is impossible with today's technology. To put TRAPPIST-1's distance into perspective, a spacecraft at the outer edges of the solar system, like the Voyager 1 probe, would still have to travel for over 73,000 years just to get to Proxima b, which is only about 4 light-years from Earth.
Therefore, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland have taken creative steps to understand what each TRAPPIST-1 world looks like. The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets are packed in a tight orbit around their dim parent star and are so close to one another that all of their orbits would fit inside Mercury's orbit of the sun. As the planets — which are namedTRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g, and h — travel tightly, their gravity can make slight changes to the others' orbits. An international team of scientists, led by Simon Grimm of the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern, was able to detect this phenomenon. [Photographing an Exoplanet: How Hard Can it Be?]
"In the TRAPPIST-1 system, the planets are so close together that they perturb each other," Grimm said in a statement from the University of Bern. "This causes a slight shift in the times of each transit." (A "transit" refers to when the planet appears to pass in front of its parent star as seen from Earth. Thousands of exoplanets have been detected and studied using the transit method.) By simulating the planetary orbits of TRAPPIST-1 with an algorithm until the computational model matched what astronomers had observed in the TRAPPIST-1 system, the team could estimate the masses of the planets. From the mass data, the team could then deduce the planets' individual densities and compositions.
Intriguingly, they found that each of the five lightest planets could have about 250 times more water than the amount in Earth's oceans, according to a statement from NASA. Up to 5 percent of their composition could be water, whereas only 0.02 percent of Earth is water.
TRAPPIST-1c, d, and e lie close to the star's "habitable zone," or the region where a star receives enough radiation that water might be able to exist as a liquid on its surface. TRAPPIST-1b, the innermost planet, and TRAPPIST-1c likely have rocky interiors and atmospheres denser than Earth's, according to the study. Of all the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest, at about 30 percent Earth's mass. This may mean it has a large atmosphere, an ice layer or an ocean, but scientists cannot yet discern that. TRAPPIST-1e is likely a rocky planet with a thin atmosphere. TRAPPIST-1f, g, and h are so distant from their parent star that their surfaces are probably covered in ice.
"We were able to measure precisely the density of exoplanets that are similar to Earth in terms of their size, mass, and irradiation, with an uncertainty of less than 10 percent, which is a first and a decisive step in the characterization of potential habitability," said Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the Center for Space and Habitability and co-author of the study, which was published in late January 2018 in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.