When NASA revealed that it had found a solar system with seven Earth-like planets, many were excited. The Trappist System was an instant hot topic, as three of the seven rocky planets were located within Trappist-1’s “Goldilocks” or habitable zone. However, a new study published online suggests that the Trappist System might be too much of a hot item — literally.
Trappist-1 is a Red Dwarf star — similar to our Sun — located about 40 light years from our system. Being a Red Dwarf, its lifetime is measured not in billions of years, but in trillions. As such, the Trappist System seemed like an ideal place to search for extraterrestrial life. However, like most Red Dwarf stars, Trappist-1 is prone to magnetic instability and huge flares.
That’s what the team of researchers from Konkoly Observatory led by Krisztián Vida have discovered. They studied Trappist-1 photometric data collected by the Keppler-2 mission and found that Trappist-1’s flares may be too frequent and too intense for life to survive on the planets orbiting it. During an 80-day observation period, they manage to identify 42 strong flaring events — five were multi-peaked — at an average frequency of once every 28 hours.
Flares are caused by stellar magnetism, which can make a star release sudden high energy bursts, usually in the range of X-ray or UV radiation. While our own solar system isn’t exempted from such flares, the Earth has largely been safe from these. One reason is our planet’s distance from the sun. Another is due to the magnetosphere — that region of space where the dominant magnetic field is the Earth’s and not that of interplanetary space — that surrounds our planet.
In the Trappist System, the researchers found that the flares are similar to the most powerful flare produced by our sun, known as the Carrington Event in 1859. It was so powerful that the impact on the Earth’s magnetosphere created auroras that stretched as far south as the Caribbean. At the same time, telegraph systems around the world were disturbed, and some telegraph operators even received electric shocks.
In the Trappist System, flares like this occur more frequently. With flares possibly hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful than what hits the Earth, the Trappist system does not seem that safe for life. “The flaring activity of TRAPPIST-1 probably continuously alters the atmospheres of the orbiting exoplanets, making these less favorable for hosting life,” the researchers wrote in the study’s abstract.
But those who search for extraterrestrial life need not worry. The Trappist System isn’t the only place where alien life might be found. Basic probability dictates that extraterrestrial life might just be hiding in the estimated 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone. It just so happens that the seven rocky planets of the Trappist System might not be hosting any such life.