Weird Planets




Artist rendering of an “eyeball world,” where one side of a tidally locked planet is always hot on the sun-facing side and the back side is frozen cold.  Definitely a tough environment, but  might some of the the planets be habitable at the edges?  Or might winds carry sufficient heat from the front to the back?  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The very first planet detected outside our solar system powerfully made clear that our prior understanding of what planets and solar systems could be like was sorely mistaken.

51 Pegasi was a Jupiter-like massive gas planet, but it was burning hot rather than freezing cold because it orbited close to its host star — circling in 4.23 days.  Given the understandings of the time, its existence was essentially impossible. 

Yet there it was, introducing us to what would become a large and growing menagerie of weird planets.

Hot Jupiters, water worlds, Tatooine planets orbiting binary stars, diamond worlds (later downgraded to carbon worlds), seven-planet solar systems with planets that all orbit closer than Mercury orbits our sun.  And this is really only a brief peak at what’s out there — almost 4,000 exoplanets confirmed but billions upon billions more to find and hopefully characterize.

I thought it might be useful — and fun — to take a look at some of the unusual planets found to learn what they tell us about planet formation, solar systems and the cosmos.


Artist’s conception of a hot Jupiter, CoRoT-2a. The first planet discovered beyond our solar system was a hot Jupiter similar to this, and this surprised astronomers and led to the view that many hot Jupiters may exist. That hypothesis has been revised as the Kepler Space Telescope found very few distant hot Jupiters and now astronomers estimate that only about 1 percent of planets are hot Jupiters. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)


Let’s start with the seven Trappist-1 planets.  The first three were detected two decades ago, circling a”ultra-cool” red dwarf star a close-by 40 light years away.  Observations via the Hubble Space Telescope led astronomers conclude that two of the planets did not have hydrogen-helium envelopes around them, which means the probability increased that the planets are rocky (rather than gaseous) and could potentially hold water on their surfaces.

Then in 2016 a Belgian team, using  the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, found three more planets, and the solar system got named Trappist-1.  The detection of an additional outer planet was announced the next year, and in total three of the seven planets were deemed to be within the host star’s habitable zone — where liquid water could conceivably be present.

So, we have a most interesting 7-planet solar system quite close to us, and not surprisingly it has become the focus of much observation and analysis.

But consider this:  all seven of those planets orbits Trappist-1 at a distance much smaller than from our sun to the first planet, Mercury. The furthest out planets orbits the star in 19 days, while Mercury orbits in 88 days.



The Trappist-1 solar system, with the transit data used to detect the presence of seven planets, each one blocking the light curve at different locations. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Given this proximity, then, why are the Trappist-1 planets so interesting, especially in terms of habitability?  Because Trappist-1 puts out but .05 percent as much energy as our sun, and the furthest out planet (though very close to the star by the standards of our solar system) is nonetheless likely to be frozen.

So Trappist-1 a mini-system, with seven tidally-locked (never-rotating) planets that happen to orbit in resonance to each other.  Just because it is so different from our system doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating, instructive, and even possibly the home of planets that could potentially support life.

And since red dwarf stars are the most common type of star in the Milky way (by lot), red dwarf solar system research is an especially hot field.

So there are mini planets and systems and massive planets in what used to be considered the impossibly wrong place.  And then there are planets with highly eccentric orbits — very different from the largely circular orbits of planets in our system.

The eccentricity of HD20782b superimposed onto our circular-orbiting inner solar system planets. (Stephen Kane)

The most extreme eccentric orbit found so far is HD 20782, measured at an eccentricity of .96. This means that the planet moves in a nearly flattened ellipse, traveling a long path far from its star and then making a fast and furious slingshot around the star at its closest approach. 

Many exoplanets have eccentricities far greater than what’s found in our solar system planets but nothing like this most unusual traveler, which has a path seemingly more like a comet than a planet.

Researchers have concluded that the eccentricity of a planet tends to relate to the number of planets in the system, with many-planeted systems having far more regularly orbiting planets.  (Ours and the Trappist-1 system are examples.)

Unusual planets come in many other categories, such as the chemical makeup of their atmospheres, surfaces and cores.  Most of the mass of stars, planets and living things consists of hydrogen and helium, with oxygen, carbon, iron and nitrogen trailing far behind.

Solid elements are exceptionally rare in the overall scheme of the solar system. Despite being predominant on Earth, they constitute less than 1 percent of the total elements in the solar system, primarily because the amount of gas in the sun and gas giants is so great.  What is generally considered the most important of these precious solid elements is iron, which is inferred to be in the core of almost all terrestrial planet.

The amount of iron or carbon or sulfur or magnesium on or around a planet generally depends on the amount of these “metals” present in the host star, and then in molecular protoplanetary disc remains of the star’s formation.  And this is where some of the outliers, the apparent oddities, come in.

A super-Earth, planet 55 Cancri e, was reported to be the first known planet to have huge layers of diamond, due in part to the high carbon-to-oxygen ratio of its host star. That conclusion has been disputed,  but the planet is nonetheless unusual.  Above is an artist’s concept of the diamond hypothesis. (Haven Giguere/Yale University)

The planet 55 Cancri e, for instance, was dubbed a “diamond planet” in 2012 because the amount of carbon relative to oxygen in the star appeared to be quite high.  Based on this measurement, a team hypothesized that the surface presence of abundant carbon likely created a graphite surface on the scalding super-Earth, with a layer of diamond beneath it created by the great pressures.

“This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” lead researcher Nikku Madhusudhan of Yale University said in a statement at the time. “The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite.”

As tends to happen in this early phase of exoplanet characterization, subsequent measurements cast some doubt on the diamond hypothesis.  And in 2016, researchers came up with a different scenario — 55 Cancri e was likely covered in lava.  But because of heavy cloud and dust cover over the planet, a subsequent group raised doubts about the lava explanation. 

But despite all this back and forth, there is a growing consensus that 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere, which is pretty remarkable given its that its “cold” side has temperatures that average of 2,400 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 to 1,400 Celsius), and the hot side averages 4,200 degrees Fahrenheit (2,300 Celsius). The difference between the hot and cold sides would need to be more extreme if there were no atmosphere.


Could super-Earth HD 219134 b be a sapphire planet? (Thibaut Roger/University of Zurich)

And then there’s another super-earth, HD 219134, that late last year was described as a planet potentially featuring vast collections of different precious stones.

To back up for a second, researchers study the formation of planets using theoretical models and compare their results with data from observations. It is known that during their formation, stars such as the sun were surrounded by a disc of gas and dust in which planets were born. Rocky planets like the Earth were formed out of the solid bodies left over when the protoplanetary gas disc cooled and dispersed.

Unlike the Earth however, HD 219134 most likely does not have a massive core of iron — a conclusion flowing from measurements of its density.  Instead, through modeling of formation scenarios for a scalding super-Earth close to its host star, the researchers conclude the planet is likely to be rich in calcium and aluminum, along with magnesium and silicon.

This chemical composition would allow the existence of large quantities of aluminum oxides. On Earth, crystalline aluminum oxide forms the mineral corundum. If the aluminum oxide contains traces of iron, titanium, cobalt or chromium, it will form the noble varieties of corundum, gemstones like the blue sapphire and the red ruby.

“Perhaps it shimmers red to blue like rubies and sapphires, because these gemstones are aluminum oxides which are common on the exoplanet,” said Caroline Dorn, astrophysicist at the Institute for Computational Science of the University of Zurich.



A variation on the “eyeball planet” is a water world where the star-facing side is able to maintain a liquid-water ocean, while the rest of the surface is ice. (eburacum45/DeviantArt)


Super-Earths, which are defined as having a size between that of Earth and Neptune, are also inferred to be the most likely to be water worlds.

At a Goldschmidt Conference in Boston last year, a study was presented that suggests that some super-Earth exoplanets are likely extremely wet with water – much more so than Earth. Astronomers found more specifically that exoplanets which are between two and four times the size of Earth are likely to have water as a dominant component.  Most are thought to be rocky and to have atmospheres, and now it seems that many have ocean, as well.

The new findings are based on data from the Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission, which show that many of the already known planets of this type (out of more than 4,000 exoplanets confirmed so far) could contain as much as 50 percent water. That upper limit is an enormous amount, compared to 0.02 percent of the water content of Earth.

This potentially wide distribution of water worlds is perhaps not so surprising given conditions in our solar system, where Earth is wet, Venus and Mars were once wet, Neptune and Uranus are ice giants and moons such as Europa and Enceladus as global oceans beneath their crusts of ice.


Might this be the strangest planet of all? (NASA)


As is apparent with the planetary types described so far, whether a planet is typical or atypical is very much up in the air.  What is atypical this year may be found to be common in the days ahead.

The Kepler mission concluded that small, terrestrial planets are likely more common than gas giants, but our technology doesn’t let us identify and characterize many of those smaller, Earth-sized planets.

Many of the planets discovered so far are quite close to their host stars and thus are scalding hot. Planets orbiting red dwarf stars are an exception, but if you’re looking for habitable planets — and many astronomers are — then red dwarf planets come with other problems in terms of habitability.  They are usually tidally locked and they start their days bathed in very high-energy radiation that could stertilize the surface for all time.

A prime goal of the Kepler mission had been to find a planet close enough in character to Earth to be considered a twin.  While they have some terrestrial candidates that could be habitable, no twin was found.  This may be a function of lacking the necessary technology, or it’s certainly possible (if unlikely) that no Earth twins are out there.  Or at least none with quite our collection of conditions favorable to habitability and life. 

With this in mind, my own current candidate for an especially unusual planet is, well, our own.   Planet-hunting over the past almost quarter-century leads to that conclusion — for now, at least.

And it may be that solar systems like ours are highly unusual, too.  Pretty surprising, given that not long ago it was considered the norm.



The Architecture of Solar Systems

The architecture of planetary systems is an increasingly important factor to exoplanet scientists.  This illustration shows the Kepler-11 system where the planets are all roughly the same size and their orbits spaced at roughly the same distances from each other.  The the planets are, in the view of scientists involved with the study, “peas in a pod.” (NASA)

Before the discovery of the first exoplanet that orbits a star like ours, 51 Pegasi b, the assumption of solar system scientists was that others planetary systems that might exist were likely to be like ours.  Small rocky planets in the inner solar system, big gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune beyond and, back then, Pluto bringing up the rear

But 51 Peg b broke every solar system rule imaginable.  It was a giant and hot Jupiter-size planet, and it was so close to its star that it orbited in a little over four days.  Our Jupiter takes twelve years to complete an orbit.

This was the “everything we knew about solar systems is wrong” period, and twenty years later thinking about the nature and logic of solar system architecture remains very much in flux.

But progress is being made, even if the results are sometimes quite confounding. The umbrella idea is no longer that solar, or planetary, systems are pretty much like ours, but rather that the galaxy is filled with a wild diversity of both planets and planetary systems.

Detecting and trying to understand planetary systems is today an important focus 0f  exoplanet study, especially now that the Kepler Space Telescope mission has made clear that multi-planet systems are common.

As of early July, 632 multi planet systems have been detected and 2,841 stars are known to have at least one exoplanets.  Many of those stars with a singular planet may well have others yet to be found.

An intriguing newcomer to the diversity story came recently from University of Montreal astronomer Lauren Weiss, who with colleagues expanded on and studied some collected Kepler data.

What she found has been deemed the “peas in a pod” addition to the solar system menagerie.

Weiss was working with the California-Kepler Survey, which included a team of scientists pouring over, elaborating on and looking for patterns in, among other things, solar system architectures.

Weiss is part of the California-Kepler Survey team, which used the Keck Observatory to obtain high-resolution spectra of 1305 stars hosting 2025 transiting planets originally discovered by Kepler.

From these spectra, they measured precise sizes of the stars and their planets, looking for patterns in, among other things, solar system architectures.  They focused on 909 planets belonging to 355 multi-planet systems. By improving the measurements of the radii of the stars, Weiss said, they were able to recalculate the radii of all the planets.

So Weiss studied hundreds systems and did find a number of surprising, unexpected patterns.

In many systems, the planets were all roughly the same size as the planet in orbit next to them. (No tiny-Mars-to-gigantic-Jupiter transitions.)  This kind of planetary architecture was not found everywhere but it was quite common — more common than random planet sizing would predict.

“The effect showed up with smaller planets and larger ones,” Weiss told me during last week’s University of Cambridge Exoplanets2 conference. “The planets in each system seemed to know about the sizes of the neighbors,” and for thus far unknown reasons maintained those similar sizes.

What’s more, Weiss and her colleagues found that the orbits of these “planets in a pod” were generally an equal distance apart in “multi” of three planets or more. In other words, the distance between the orbits of planet A and planet B was often the same distance as between the orbits of planet B and planet C.

Lauren Weiss at the W.M Keck Observatory.

So not only were many of the planets almost the same size, but they were in orbits spaced at distances from each other that were once again much more similar than a random distribution would predict. In the Astronomical Journal article where she and her colleagues described the phenomena, they also found a “wall” defining how close together the planets orbited.

The architecture of these systems, Weiss said, reflected the shapes and sizes of the protoplanetary in which they were formed.  And it would appear that the planets had not been disrupted by larger planets that can dramatically change the structure of a solar system — as happened with Jupiter in our own.

But while those factors explain some of what was found, Weiss said other astrophysical dynamics needed to be at play as well to produce this common architecture.  The stability of the system, for instance, would be compromised if the orbits were closer than that “wall,” as the gravitational pull of the planets would send them into orbits that would ultimately result in collisions.

The improved spectra of the Kepler planets were obtained from 2011 to 2015, and the targets are mostly located between 1,000 and 4,000 light-years away from Earth.

The architectures of California-Kepler study multi-planet systems with four planets or more.  Each row corresponds to the planets around one and the circles represent the radii of planets in the system.  Note how many have lines of planets that are roughly the same size. (Lauren Weiss, The Astronomical Journal.)

Planetary system architecture was a significant topic at the Cambridge Exoplanets2 conference.  While the detection of individual exoplanets remains important in the field, it is often treated as a precursor to the ultimate detection of systems with more planets. 

The TRAPPIST-1 system, discovered in 2015 by a Belgian team, is probably the most studied and significant of those discovered so far.

The ultra-cool dwarf star hosts seven Earth-sized, temperate exoplanets in or near the “habitable zone.” As described by one of those responsible for the discovery, Brice-Olivier Demory of the Center for Space and Habitability University of Bern, the system “represents a unique setting to study the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets that formed in the same protoplanetary disk.”

The Trappist-1 architecture features not only the seven rocky planets, but also a resonance system whereby the planets orbits at paces directly related to the planets nearby them.  In other words, one planet may make two orbits in exactly the time that it takes for the next planet to make three orbits.

All the Trappist-1 planets are in resonance to another system planet, though they are not all in resonance to each other.

The animation above from the NASA Ames Research Center shows the orbits of the Trappist-1 system.  The planets pass so close to one another that gravitational interactions are significant, and to remain stable the orbital periods are nearly resonant. In the time the innermost planet completes eight orbits, the second, third, and fourth planets complete five, three, and two respectively.

The system is very flat and compact. All seven of TRAPPIST-1’s planets orbit much closer to their star than Mercury orbits the sun. Except for TRAPPIST-1b, they orbit farther than the Galilean moons — three of which are also in resonance around Jupiter.

The distance between the orbits of TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c is only 1.6 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.  A year on the closest planet passes in only 1.5 Earth days, while the seventh planet’s year passes in only 18.8 days.

Given the packed nature of the system, the planets have to be in particular orbits that keep them from colliding.  But they also have to be in orbits that ensure that all or most of the planets aren’t on the same side of the star, creating a severe imbalance that would result in chaos.

“The Trappist-1 system has entered into a zone of stability,” Demory told me, also at the Exoplanets2 conference.  “We think of it as a Darwinian effect — the system survives because of that stability created through the resonance.  Without the stability, it would die. ”

He said the Trappist-1 planets were most likely formed away from their star and migrated inward.  The system had rather a long time to form, between seven and eight billion years.

The nature of some of the systems now being discovered brings to mind that early reaction to the detection of 51 Pegasi b, the world’s first known exoplanet.

The prevailing consensus that extra-solar systems would likely be similar to ours was turned on its head by the giant planet’s closeness to its host star.  For a time many astronomers thought that hot Jupiter planets would be found to be common.

But 20 years later they know that hot Jupiters — and the planetary architecture they create — are rather unusual, like the architecture of our own solar system.

With each new discovery of a planetary system, the understanding grows that while solar systems are governed by astrophysical forces, they nonetheless come in all sizes and shapes. Diversity is what binds them together.


Can You Overwater a Planet?


Water worlds, especially if they have no land on them, are unlikely to be home to life, or at least lifewe can detect.  Some of the basic atmospheric and mineral cycles that make a planet habitable will be absent. Cool animation of such a world. (NASA)

By guest columnist Elizabeth Tasker


Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. It is a connection that extends to the most inhospitable locations, such as the acidic pools of Yellowstone, the black smokers on the ocean floor or the cracks in frozen glaciers. This intimate relationship led to the NASA maxim, “Follow the Water”, when searching for life on other planets.

Yet it turns out you can have too much of a good thing. In the November NExSS Habitable Worlds workshop in Wyoming, researchers discussed what would happen if you over-watered a planet. The conclusions were grim.

Despite oceans covering over 70% of our planet’s surface, the Earth is relatively water-poor, with water only making up approximately 0.1% of the Earth’s mass. This deficit is due to our location in the Solar System, which was too warm to incorporate frozen ices into the forming Earth. Instead, it is widely — though not exclusively — theorized that the Earth formed dry and water was later delivered by impacts from icy meteorites. It is a theory that two asteroid missions, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and JAXA’s Hayabusa2, will test when they reach their destinations next year.

But not all planets orbit where they were formed. Around other stars, planets frequently show evidence of having migrated to their present orbit from a birth location elsewhere in the planetary system.

One example are the seven planets orbiting the star, TRAPPIST-1. Discovered in February this year, these Earth-sized worlds orbit in resonance, meaning that their orbital times are nearly exact integer ratios. Such a pattern is thought to occur in systems of planets that formed further away from the star and migrated inwards.


Trappist-1 and some of its seven orbiting planets.  They would have been sterilized by high levels of radiation in the early eons of that solar system — unless they were formed far out and then migrated in.  That scenario would also allow for the planets to contain substantial amounts of water. (NASA)

The TRAPPIST-1 worlds currently orbit in a temperate region where the levels of radiation from the star are similar to that received by our terrestrial worlds. Three of the planets orbit in the star’s habitable zone, where a planet like the Earth is most likely to exist.

However, if these planets were born further from the star, they may have formed with a high fraction of their mass in ices. As the planets migrated inwards to more clement orbits, this ice would have melted to produce a deep ocean. The result would be water worlds.

With more water than the Earth, such planets are unlikely to have any exposed land. This does not initially sound like a problem; life thrives in the Earth’s seas, from photosynthesizing algae to the largest mammals on the planet. The problem occurs with the planet itself.

The clement environment on the Earth’s surface is dependent on our atmosphere. If this envelope of gas was stripped away, the Earth’s average global temperature would be about -18°C (-0.4°F): too cold for liquid water. Instead, this envelope of gases results in a global average of 15°C (59°F).

Exactly how much heat is trapped by our atmosphere depends on the quantity of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. On geological timescales, the carbon dioxide levels can be adjusted by a geological process known as the “carbon-silicate cycle”.

In this cycle, carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in rainwater where it splashes down on the Earth’s silicate rocks. The resulting reaction is termed “weathering”. Weathering forms carbonates and releases minerals from the rocks that wash into the oceans. Eventually, the carbon is released back into the air as carbon dioxide through volcanoes.

Continents are not only key for habitability because they sources of minerals and needed elements but also because they allow for plate tectonics — the movements and subsequent crackings of the planet’s crust that allow gases to escape.  Those gases are needed to produce an atmosphere.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The rate of weathering is sensitive to temperature, slowing when he planet is cool and increasing when the temperature rises. This allows the Earth to maintain an agreeable climate for life during small variations in our orbit due to the tug of our neighboring planets or when the sun was young and cooler. The minerals released by weathering are used by all life on Earth, in particular phosphorous which forms part of our DNA.

However, this process requires land. And that is a commodity a water world lacks. Speaking at the Habitable Worlds workshop, Theresa Fisher, a graduate student at Arizona State University, warned against the effects of submerging your continents.

Fisher considered the consequences of adding roughly five oceans of water to an Earth-sized planet, covering all land in a global sea. Feasible, because weathering could still occur with rock on the ocean floor, though at a much reduced efficiency. The planet might then be able to regulate carbon dioxide levels, but the large reduction in freed minerals with underwater weathering would be devastating for life.

Despite being a key element for all life on Earth, phosphorus is not abundant on our planet. The low levels are why phosphorous is the main ingredient in fertilizer. Reduce the efficiency with which phosphorous is freed from rocks and life will plummet.

Such a situation is a big problem for finding a habitable world, warns Steven Desch, a professor at Arizona State University. Unless life is capable of strongly influencing the composition of the atmosphere, its presence will remain impossible to detect from Earth.

“You need to have land not to have life, but to be able to detect life,” Desch concludes.

However, considerations of detectability become irrelevant if even more water is added to the planet. Should an Earth-sized planet have fifty oceans of water (roughly 1% of the planet’s mass), the added weight will cause high pressure ices to form on the ocean floor. A layer of thick ice would seal the planet rock away from the ocean and atmosphere, shutting down the carbon-silicate cycle. The planet would be unable to regulate its surface temperature and trapped minerals would be inaccessible for life.

Add still more water and Cayman Unterborn, a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State, warns that the pressure will seal the planet’s lid. The Earth’s surface is divided into plates that are in continual motion. The plates melt as they slide under one another and fresh crust is formed where the plates pull apart. When the ocean weight reaches 2% of the planet’s mass, melting is suppressed and the planet’s crust grinds to a halt.

A stagnant lid would prevent any gases trapped in the rocks during the planet’s formation from escaping. Such “degassing” is the main source of atmosphere for a rocky planet. Without such a process, the Earth-sized deep water world could only cling to an envelop of water vapor and any gas that may have escaped before the crust sealed shut.

Unterborn’s calculations suggest that this fate awaits the TRAPPIST-1 planets, with the outer worlds plausibly having hundreds of oceans worth of water pressing down on the planet.

So can we prove if TRAPPIST-1 and similarly migrated worlds are drowning in a watery grave? Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, notes that exoplanets are currently seen only as “dark shadows” briefly reducing their star’s light.

However, the next generation of telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will aim to change this with observations of planetary atmospheres. Intertwined with the planet’s geological and biological processes, this cloak of gases may reveal if the world is living or dead.


Elizabeth Tasker is a planetary scientist and communicator at the Japanese space agency JAXA and the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.  She is also author of a new book about planet formation titled “The Planet Factory.”




A Solar System Found Crowded With Seven Earth-Sized Exoplanets

Seven Earth-sized rocked planets have been detected around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The system is 40 light years away, but is considered to be an easy system to study — as explanet research goes. (NASA)

Seven planets orbiting one star.  All of them roughly the size of Earth.  A record three in what is considered the habitable zone, the distance from the host star where liquid water could exist on the surface.  The system a mere 40 light-years away.

The latest impressive additions to the world of exoplanets orbit the dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, named after a European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile.

Previously a team of astronomers based in Belgium discovered three  planets around this dim star, but now that number has increased to include the largest number of Earth-sized planets found to date, as well as the largest number in one solar system in the habitable zone.

This is a very different kind of sun-and-exoplanet system than has generally been studied.  The broad quest for an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone has focused on stars of the size and power of our sun.  But this one is 8 percent the mass of our sun —  not that much larger than Jupiter — and with a luminosity (or energy) but 0.05 percent of that put out by our sun.

The TRAPPIST-1 findings underscore one of the recurring and intriguing aspects of the exoplanet discoveries of the past two decades — the solar systems out there are a menagerie of very different shapes and sizes, with exoplanets of a wild range of sizes orbiting an equally wide range of types and sizes of stars.

Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium, and lead author of the discovery reported in the journal Nature, put it this way: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth.”

At a NASA press conference, he also said that “small stars like this are much more frequent than stars like ours.  Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to study, three in the habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone, and that’s quite promising for search for life beyond Earth.”

He said that the planets are so close to each other than if a person was on the surface of one, the others would provide a wonderful close-up view, rather like our view of the moon.

This diagram compares the orbits of the newly-discovered planets around the faint red star TRAPPIST-1 with the Galilean moons of Jupiter and the inner Solar System. All the planets found around TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun, but as their star is far fainter, they are exposed to similar levels of irradiation as Venus, Earth and Mars in the Solar System.

The orbits of the Trappist-1 planets are not much greater than those of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and are considerably smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the solar system. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy reaching its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our solar system. TRAPPIST-1c, d and f, for instance, receive similar amounts of energy as Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, the authors said, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others.  So far there has been no confirmation of water on the planets, but the search has intensified.

“The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our sun,” co-author Amaury Triaud said.  “Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in our solar system if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1.”

Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbor liquid water — assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring

TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the sweet spot for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water if other conditions were present.

As Sara Seager, an MIT pioneer in the study of exoplanet atmospheres, said in the NASA press conference, “with this discovery we’ve taken a giant, accelerated leap forward.  In one system, we have room so that if one planet in the habitable zones is not quite right (for study and possibly biology) we have many other chances.  This Goldilocks has many sisters.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, added: “This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life. Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”


The telescope at the center of the discoveries is TRAPPIST-South (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South), s small 60 cm telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile devoted to the study of planetary systems.  The robotic telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium. TRAPPIST–South is mostly funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research with the participation of the Swiss National Science Foundation. (ESO)

The discovery of the four additional Earth-sized planets was made during a global campaign of observation, most especially by NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, called it “the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations…Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Because the Trappist-1 system is so relatively easy to observe, and because it is providing such riches, many ground- based observatories have joined in the search.

Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it — events known as transits — allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team leader Gillon said the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, can potentially begin a rigorous examination of the atmospheres of the planets.

“These planets are accesible to observations with JWST.  We will be able to study the atmospheres, the greenhouse gas compositions.  We will search for gases that might be produced by life,” said Gillon.


This artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star. The system has been revealed through observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ground-based TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope, as well as other ground-based observatories.  (NASA)


But there are also significant barriers to habitability in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Because the planets are so close to their host star — the first has an orbit of 1.5 days, the second an orbit of 2.4 days and the third an ill-defined orbit of between 4.5 and 73 days — that means they are tidally-locked, as is our moon.  Not long ago, exoplanet scientists doubted that a planet that doesn’t rotate can be truly habitable since the extremes of hot and cold would be too great.  That view has changed with creation of models that suggest tidal locking is not necessarily fatal for habitability, but it most likely does make it more difficult to achieve.

A larger potential barrier is that the dwarf star once was quite different.  Jonathan Fortney, a University of California at Santa Clara specialist in dwarf stars and brown dwarfs (objects which are too large to be called planets and too small to be stars), focused on that stellar history:

“One thing to keep in mind is that this star was much much brighter in the past,” he said in an email a while back. “M stars (like TRAPPIST-1) are hottest when they are young and take a long time to cool off and settle down.  Their energy comes from contraction at first.  A star like this takes 1 billion years to even settle onto the main sequence (where it starts burning hydrogen).”

Gillon said that the age of the star system was not well understood, but that it was at least a half billion years old.

Shawn Domogal-Goldman, a research space scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center with a focus on exoplanets, said that the big news of the day for him is that the questions raised about conditions on red or M dwarf stars is that “they’re all testable on the TRAPPIST-1 planets in the near term.

“We can do follow-up observations of these worlds with the Hubble and JWST. Yesterday, I would have said ‘you can test these hypotheses with Webb but you kind of need the perfect target.’ Well, today we kind of have the perfect target.”

This diagram shows how the light of the dim red ultra cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 fades as each of its seven known planets passes in front of it and blocks some of its light. The larger planets create deeper dips and the more distance ones have longer lasting transits as they are orbiting more slowly. These data were obtained from observations made with the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. (NASA)


From the total of 2,687 stars known to have exoplanets (as of February 15, 2017), there are a total of 602 known multiplanetary systems, or stars with at least two confirmed planets. About 280 of these have only two confirmed exoplanets, but some have a significantly larger number.

The star with the most confirmed planets is our sun with eight (after the demotion of Pluto), while the stars with the most confirmed exoplanets are Kepler-90, HD 10180 and HR 8832, with 7 confirmed planets each.  In 2012, two more exoplanet candidates were proposed but not yet confirmed for HD 10180, which would bring the total to 9 exoplanets in that system.


Rocky, Close and Potentially Habitable Planets Around a Dwarf Star

This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (M. Kornmesser/ESO)
This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface one of the three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth that were discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. (M. Kornmesser/ESO)

Forty light-years away is no small distance. But an announcement of the discovery of two planets at that separation that have been determined to be rocky and Earth-sized adds a significant new twist to the ever-growing collection of relatively close-by exoplanets that just might be habitable.

The two planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system orbit what is known as a red dwarf star, a type of star that is typically much cooler than the sun, emitting radiation in the infrared rather than the visible spectrum.  While there has been much debate about whether an exoplanet around a dwarf can be deemed habitable, especially since they are all believed to be tidally locked and so only one side faces the star, a consensus appears to be growing that dwarf stars could host habitable planets.

The two new rocky exoplanets were detected using the Hubble Space Telescope and were deemed most likely rocky by the compact sizes of their atmospheres — which were not large and diffuse hydrogen/helium envelopes (like that of the Jupiter) but instead more tightly packed, more like the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, and Mars.  It was the first time scientists have been able to search for and at least partially characterize of atmospheres around a temperate, Earth-sized planet.

Having determined that the planets are rocky, principal investigator Julien de Wit of M.I.T’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, said the goal now is to characterize their atmospheres.

“Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?” de Wit said. “The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, where the atmosphere is dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere with heavy clouds, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere. The next step is tomtry to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets.”

Artist's impression of the two planets in the Trappist-1 solar system. These worlds have sizes, temperatures and potentially atmospheres similar to those of Venus and Earth. Some believe they may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the solar system. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. (Nasa/ESA/STScI)
Artist’s impression of the two planets in the Trappist-1 solar system. These worlds have sizes, temperatures and potentially atmospheres similar to those of Venus and Earth. Some believe they may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the solar system. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. (Nasa/ESA/STScI)


Host stars with exoplanets that are (very relatively) close to us are highly valued because they are potentially easier to observe and characterize.

There are 24 known exoplanets within 40 light-years, 14 are within 30 light-years, and only six are within 20 light-years. The closest exoplanet considered confirmed by NASA is Epsilon Eridani b, 10.5 light-years away from our solar system, while the closest known rocky planet is HD 219134 b, which is 21 light-years away..  Planetary companions have been suggested to exist in some of the nine star systems located within 10 light-years away, including in the closest system, Alpha Centauri (4.1 light-years away).

TRAPPIST-1 (planets b and c) are among the closest orbiting a red dwarf star, and they provided an unusual double transit to observe.

“The two planets actually transited their star just 12 minutes apart so we got two planets for the price of one,” said co-author Hannah Wakeford of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  “This is the first time two planets have been characterized with Hubble at the same time on purpose, and the first time such small (Earth-sized) planets have had atmospheric follow-up done.”

The researchers hope to use Hubble to conduct follow-up observations to search for thinner atmospheres, composed of elements heavier than hydrogen, like those of Earth and Venus.

“With more data, we could perhaps detect methane or see water features in the atmospheres, which would give us estimates of the depth of the atmospheres,” she said.

The results were reported in the journal Nature.

Hubble/WFC3 white-light curve for the TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c double transit of 4 May 2016. (NASA/SScI)
Hubble/WFC3 white-light curve for the TRAPPIST-1b and
TRAPPIST-1c double transit of 4 May 2016. (NASA/STScI)

There’s an interesting story behind their Hubble observation of the two transits.  Using their relatively small telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla facility in Chile, the TRAPPIST-1 team detected the unusual three-planet system around the small, cool star and published their discovery a little more than two months ago.

Within days, they realized that planets b and c would be orbiting the star at almost exactly the same time — an unexpected and quite valuable occurrence.  (Information about that double transit was provided via the Spitzer Space Telescope, which had also been studying the orbits of planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.)

The upcoming double transit was confirmed but two weeks before the event. The team requested Hubble time for a quick observation, and it was granted.  The successful observation soon followed.

DeWit said that planets with the sizes and equilibrium temperatures of TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c could possess relatively thick atmospheres with water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen.

The TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) project is the creation in large part of the Origins in Cosmology and Astrophysics group of the University of Liege in Belgium.

The TRAPPIST instrument is new kind of ground telescope designed to survey the sky in infrared. TRAPPIST was built as a 60-centimeter prototype to monitor the 70 brightest dwarf stars in the southern sky. Now, the researchers have formed a consortium, called SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars), and are building four larger versions of the telescope in Chile, to focus on the brightest ultracool dwarf stars in the skies over the southern hemisphere. The researchers are also trying to raise money to build telescopes in the northern sky.

The 60cm telescope is devoted to the detection and characterization of planets located outside our Solar System and to the study of comets and other small bodies in our solar system. (Trappist/ESO)
The 60cm telescope is devoted to the detection and characterization of planets located outside our Solar System and to the study of comets and other small bodies in our solar system. (Trappist/ESO)

According to De Wit, he TRAPPIST telescopes are inexpensive compared with their peer — about $400,000 per instrument.

He is pushing to make them a relatively affordable “prescreening tool” that scientists can use to identify planets that are potentially habitable.  The TRAPPIST observations would then be followed up by my detailed study using powerful telescopes such as Hubble and NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in October 2018.

“With more observations using Hubble, and further down the road with James Webb, we can know not only what kind of atmosphere planets like TRAPPIST-1 have, but also what is within these atmospheres,” de Wit says. “And that’s very exciting.”