The inside of the planet within the TRAPPIST-1 system may very well be affected by photo voltaic flares

In a study recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne investigated how solar flares erupting from the TRAPPIST-1 star could affect the internal heating of its orbiting exoplanets. This study has the potential to help us better understand how solar flares affect planetary evolution. The TRAPPIST-1 system is an exolanetary system located about 39 light-years from Earth with at least seven potentially rocky exoplanets in orbit around a star 12 times less massive than our own Sun. Since the parent star is much smaller than our own sun, the planetary orbits within the TRAPPIST-1 system are also much smaller than our own solar system. So how can this study help us better understand the potential habitability of planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system?

“If we take Earth as a starting point, geological activity has shaped the entire surface of the planet, and geological activity is ultimately driven by the cooling of the planet,” said Dr. Dan Bower, geophysicist at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern and co-author of the study. “The Earth has radioactive elements within it that generate heat and allow geological processes to continue beyond 4.5 Gy. However, the question is whether all planets require radioactive elements to fuel geological processes that can create a habitable surface environment that allows life to develop. Although some other processes within a planet can generate heat, they are often short-lived or require special circumstances, which would support the hypothesis that geological activity (and habitable environments?) may be rare.” What makes this study intriguing is that TRAPPIST -1 is known as an M-type star, which is much smaller than our Sun and emits far less solar radiation.

“M stars (red dwarfs) are the most common type of star in our stellar environment, and TRAPPIST-1 has attracted considerable attention since it was discovered to be orbited by seven Earth-sized planets,” said Dr. bower “In our study, we examined how stellar flares from TRAPPIST-1 affected the internal heat budget of the orbiting planets and discovered that, particularly for the planets closest to the star, internal heating due to ohmic dissipation from flares is significant is and can drive geological activity. Additionally, the process is long-lived and can continue across geological timescales, potentially leading to the surface environment evolving toward habitable or cycling through a series of habitable states. Until now, the impact of stellar flares on habitability has mostly been thought of as destructive, for example by destroying the protective atmosphere that envelops a planet. Our results present a different perspective and show how flares can actually encourage the establishment of a habitable near-surface environment.” Ohmic power loss, also known as ohmic loss, is defined as “a loss of electrical energy due to conversion to heat when a current flows through a resistor”. Essentially, this is what scientists have used to calculate the amount of heat a planet loses, also known as planetary cooling, which strikes all terrestrial planetary bodies – even Earth.

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The study’s results suggest that the planetary cooling occurring on the TRAPPIST-1 planets is sufficient to drive geological activity, which would result in thicker atmospheres. The researcher’s models also predict that the presence of a planetary magnetic field may improve these heating results.

Recently, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope made its first observations of the TRAPPIST-1 system and found that one of the planets in its system has a low probability of possessing a hydrogen atmosphere, like the gaseous planets in our own solar system. This could indicate that at least one of TRAPPIST-1’s planets may have a more Earth-like atmosphere, like Earth, Mars, and Venus. Given that TRAPPIST-1 has potential in the field of astrobiology, what follow-up research is planned for this study?

“There are two obvious avenues to follow,” explains Dr. bower “First, our stellar neighborhood is dominated by M stars, so observing campaigns can assess the flare-up nature of many more M stars besides TRAPPIST-1. Second, improved characterization of the TRAPPIST planetary system through observations and models will improve our understanding of the planetary interior. This allows us to refine our model to determine whether the planets have an iron core and whether they have a large Earth-like silicate mantle.”

“We plan to run more sophisticated physical simulations to better understand the effect of intrinsic magnetic fields,” said Dr. Alexander Grayver, Heisenberg junior research group leader at the University of Cologne and main author of the study. “The long-term goal is to couple our model with models of atmospheric formation and erosion.”

Do any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets contain the ingredients for life as we know it, or perhaps as we don’t know it? Only time will tell, and that’s why we know science!

As always, keep doing science and keep looking up!

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