News | January 21, 2021

Seven Rocky TRAPPIST-1 Planets May Be Made of Similar Stuff

seven trappist-1 exoplanets seen in an illustration
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

The red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is home to the largest group of roughly Earth-size planets ever found in a single stellar system. Located about 40 light-years away, these seven rocky siblings provide an example of the tremendous variety of planetary systems that likely fill the universe.

A new study published today in the Planetary Science Journal shows that the TRAPPIST-1 planets have remarkably similar densities. That could mean they all contain about the same ratio of materials thought to compose most rocky planets, like iron, oxygen, magnesium, and silicon. But if this is the case, that ratio must be notably different than Earth's: The TRAPPIST-1 planets are about 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same makeup as our home planet. Based on that conclusion, the paper authors hypothesized a few different mixtures of ingredients could give the TRAPPIST-1 planets the measured density.

Comparisons of TRAPPIST-1 planets to solar system planets
A planet’s density is determined by its composition as well as its size: Gravity compresses the material a planet is made of, increasing the planet’s density. Uncompressed density adjusts for the effect of gravity and can reveal how the composition of various planets compare. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of these planets have been known since 2016, when scientists announced that they’d found three planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. Subsequent observations by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, in collaboration with ground-based telescopes, confirmed two of the original planets and discovered five more. Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Spitzer observed the system for over 1,000 hours before being decommissioned in January 2020. NASA’s Hubble and now-retired Kepler space telescopes have also studied the system.

All seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, which are so close to their star that they would fit within the orbit of Mercury, were found via the transit method: Scientists can’t see the planets directly (they’re too small and faint relative to the star), so they look for dips in the star’s brightness created when the planets cross in front of it.

Repeated observations of the starlight dips combined with measurements of the timing of the planets’ orbits enabled astronomers to estimate the planets’ masses and diameters, which were in turn used to calculate their densities. Previous calculations determined that the planets are roughly the size and mass of Earth and thus must also be rocky, or terrestrial – as opposed to gas-dominated, like Jupiter and Saturn. The new paper offers the most precise density measurements yet for any group of exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system.

The seven TRAPPIST-1 planets possess similar densities – the values differ by no more than 3%. This makes the system quite different from our own. The difference in density between the TRAPPIST-1 planets and Earth and Venus may seem small – about 8% – but it is significant on a planetary scale. For example, one way to explain why the TRAPPIST-1 planets are less dense is that they have a similar composition to Earth, but with a lower percentage of iron – about 21% compared to Earth’s 32%, according to the study.

Alternatively, the iron in the TRAPPIST-1 planets might be infused with high levels of oxygen, forming iron oxide, or rust. The additional oxygen would decrease the planets’ densities. The surface of Mars gets its red tint from iron oxide, but like its three terrestrial siblings, it has a core composed of non-oxidized iron. By contrast, if the lower density of the TRAPPIST-1 planets were caused entirely by oxidized iron, the planets would have to be rusty throughout and could not have solid iron cores.

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Possible interiors of TRAPPIST-1 planets
Three possible interiors of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. The more precisely scientists know the density of a planet, the more they can narrow down the range of possible interiors for that planet. All seven planets have very similar densities, so they likely have a similar compositions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eric Agol, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington and lead author of the new study, said the answer might be a combination of the two scenarios – less iron overall and some oxidized iron.

The team also looked into whether the surface of each planet could be covered with water, which is even lighter than rust and which would change the planet’s overall density. If that were the case, water would have to account for about 5% of the total mass of the outer four planets. By comparison, water makes up less than one-tenth of 1% of Earth’s total mass.

Because they’re positioned too close to their star for water to remain a liquid under most circumstances, the three inner TRAPPIST-1 planets would require hot, dense atmospheres like Venus’, such that water could remain bound to the planet as steam. But Agol says this explanation seems less likely because it would be a coincidence for all seven planets to have just enough water present to have such similar densities.

Detailed measurements of TRAPPIST-1 planets
Detailed measurements of the physical properties of the seven rocky TRAPPIST-1 planets and the four terrestrial planets in our solar system help scientists find similarities and differences between the two planet families. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The night sky is full of planets, and it’s only been within the last 30 years that we’ve been able to start unraveling their mysteries,” said Caroline Dorn, an astrophysicist at the University of Zurich and a co-author of the paper. “The TRAPPIST-1 system is fascinating because around this one star we can learn about the diversity of rocky planets within a single system. And we can actually learn more about a planet by studying its neighbors as well, so this system is perfect for that.”

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, managed the Spitzer mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC at Caltech. Spitzer’s entire science catalogue is available via the Spitzer data archive, housed at the Infrared Science Archive at IPAC. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.

News Media Contacts

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
626-808-2469
calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov