Kepler telescope spies details of TRAPPIST-1 system's outermost planet

The ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its seven planets. A UW-led team has learned details of TRAPPIST-1h, the system’s outermost planet. Credit: NASA

A University of Washington-led international team of astronomers has used data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope to observe and confirm details of the outermost of seven exoplanets or-biting the star TRAPPIST-1.

They confirmed that the planet, TRAPPIST-1h, orbits its star every 18.77 days, is linked in its orbital path to its siblings and is frigidly cold. Far from its , the planet is likely uninhabit-able—but it may not always have been so.

UW doctoral student Rodrigo Luger is lead author on a paper published May 22 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

"TRAPPIST-1h was exactly where our team predicted it to be," Luger said. The researchers dis-covered a mathematical pattern in the orbital periods of the inner six planets, which was strongly suggestive of an 18.77 day period for planet h.

"It had me worried for a while that we were seeing what we wanted to see. Things are almost never exactly as you expect in this field—there are usually surprises around every corner, but theory and observation matched perfectly in this case."

TRAPPIST-1 is a middle-aged, ultra cool dwarf star, much less luminous than the sun and only a bit larger than the planet Jupiter. The star, which is nearly 40 light-years or about 235 trillion miles away in the constellation of Aquarius, is named after the ground-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), the facility that first found evidence of planets around it in 2015.

The TRAPPIST survey is led by Michael Gillon of the University of Liège, Belgium, who is also a coauthor on this research. In 2016, Gillon's team announced the detection of three planets or-biting TRAPPIST-1 and this number was upped to seven in a subsequent 2017 paper. Three of TRAPPIST-1's planets appear to be within the star's habitable zone, that swath of space around a star where a rocky planet could have liquid water on its surface, thus giving life a chance.

Such exoplanets are detected when they transit, or pass in front of, their host star, blocking a measurable portion of the light. Gillon's team was able to observe only a single transit for TRAP-PIST-1h, the farthest-out of the star's seven progeny, prior to the data analyzed by Luger's team.

Luger led a multi-institution international research team that studied the TRAPPIST-1 system more closely using 79 days of observation data from K2, the second mission of the Kepler Space Telescope. The team was able to observe and study four transits of TRAPPIST-1h across its star.

The animation shows a simulation of the planets of TRAPPIST-1 orbiting for 90 Earth-days. After 15 Earth days, the animation focuses only on the outer three planets: TRAPPIST-1f, TRAPPIST-1g, TRAPPIST-1h. The motion freezes each time two adjacent planets pass each other; an arrow appears pointing to the location of the third planet. This complex but predictable pattern, called an orbital resonance, occurs when planets exert a regular, periodic gravitational tug on each other as they orbit their star. The three-body resonance of the outer three planets causes the planets to repeat the same relative positions, and expecting such a resonance was used to predict the orbital period of TRAPPIST-1h.   Credit: By Daniel Fabrycky / University of Chicago; with reference to Luger et al. 2017, Nature Astronomy

The team used the K2 data to further characterize the orbits of the other six planets, help rule out the presence of additional transiting planets, and determine the rotation period and activity level of the star. They also discovered that TRAPPIST-1's seven planets appear linked in a complex dance known as an orbital resonance where their respective orbital periods are mathematically related and slightly influence each other.

"Resonances can be tricky to understand, especially between three bodies. But there are simpler cases that are easier to explain," Luger said. For instance, closer to home, Jupiter's moons Io, Eu-ropa and Ganymede are set in a 1:2:4 resonance, meaning that Europa's orbital period is exactly twice that of Io, and Ganymede's is exactly twice that of Europa.

These relationships, Luger said, suggested that by studying the orbital velocities of its neighbor planets they could predict the exact orbital velocity, and hence also orbital period, of TRAP-PIST-1h even before the K2 observations. Their theory proved correct when they located the planet in the K2 data.

TRAPPIST-1's seven-planet chain of resonances established a record among known planetary systems, the previous holders being the systems Kepler-80 and Kepler-223, each with four reso-nant planets. The resonances are "self-correcting," Luger said, such that if one planet were to somehow be nudged off course, it would lock right back into resonance. "Once you're caught into this kind of stable resonance, it's hard to escape," he said.

Astronomers confirm orbital details of TRAPPIST-1h
This artist's concept shows TRAPPIST-1h, one of seven Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. NASA's Kepler spacecraft, operating in its K2 mission, obtained data that allowed scientists to determine that the orbital period of TRAPPIST-1h is 19 days. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

All of this, Luger said, indicates that these orbital connections were forged early in the life of the TRAPPIST-1 system, when the planets and their orbits were not fully formed.

"The resonant structure is no coincidence, and points to an interesting dynamical history in which the planets likely migrated inward in lock-step," Luger said. "This makes the system a great testbed for planet formation and migration theories."

It also means that while TRAPPIST-1h is now extremely cold—with an average temperature of 173 Kelvin (minus 148 F)—it likely spent several hundred million years in a much warmer state, when its host star was younger and brighter.

"We could therefore be looking at a planet that was once habitable and has since frozen over, which is amazing to contemplate and great for follow-up studies," Luger said.

Luger said he has been working with data from the K2 mission for a while now, researching ways to reduce "instrumental noise" in its data resulting from broken reaction wheels—small flywheels that help position the spacecraft—that can overwhelm planetary signals.

"Observing TRAPPIST-1 with K2 was an ambitious task," said Marko Sestovic, a doctoral stu-dent at the University of Bern and second author of the study. In addition to the extraneous sig-nals introduced by the spacecraft's wobble, the faintness of the star in the optical (the range of wavelengths where K2 observes) placed TRAPPIST-1h "near the limit of what we could detect with K2," he said. To make matters worse, Sestovic said, one transit of the planet coincided with a transit of TRAPPIST-1b, and one coincided with a stellar flare, adding to the difficulty of the observation. "Finding the planet was really encouraging," Luger said, "since it showed we can still do high-quality science with Kepler despite significant instrumental challenges."

Luger's UW co-authors are astronomy doctoral students Ethan Kruse and Brett Morris, post-doctoral researcher Daniel Foreman-Mackey and professor Eric Agol (Guggenheim Fellow). Agol separately helped confirm the approximate mass of TRAPPIST-1 planets with a technique he and colleagues devised called "transit timing variations" that describes planets' gravitational tugs on one another.

Luger said the TRAPPIST-1 system's relative nearness "makes it a prime target for follow-up and characterization with current and upcoming telescopes, which may be able to give us information about these ' atmospheric composition."

Explore further

Temperate earth-sized worlds found in extraordinarily rich planetary system (Update)

More information: A seven-planet resonant chain in TRAPPIST-1, Nature Astronomy (2017).
Journal information: Nature Astronomy

Citation: Kepler telescope spies details of TRAPPIST-1 system's outermost planet (2017, May 22) retrieved 21 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 23, 2017
"or-biting the star TRAPPIST-1" just doesn't read write. ;)

May 30, 2017
The three way oscillation pattern in the video is interesting. There are three planets: pink, purple and light blue. The video shows 4 stop-action "arrow moments."

In the 4 "arrow moments," the pink and light blue planets are always opposite each other (with their star always in between). In arrow moments 1 and 3, the purple planet is close to the pink planet. In arrow moments 2 and 4, the purple planet is close to the light blue planet.

This means that their gravitational tugs on their star, and each other, will always be balanced.

In addition, the shaft of the arrow rotates gradually, in equal increments. The 4 arrow moments cover about 60 degrees (my guess) of the full 360 degrees. So there might be 24 equally spaced alignment changes of the arrow shaft in a full cycle.

This also adds balance and fortifies the planetary "lock-step."

Circa 1966, Art Winfree specified stable patterns for a 3 oscillator system. This is one of his stable patterns.

May 30, 2017
Specifically, Art Winfree said that one stable pattern for a system of three periodic oscillators is as follows. Ingredients: periodic oscillators A and B have identical frequencies X for their periodic oscillations. Periodic oscillator C has a frequency of 2 X for its periodic oscillations.

Such a system will stabilize when A and B are opposed, and C beats in opposition to A in cycle 1. Then, in cycle 2, A and B are again opposed, but C beats in opposition to B.

As experts try to figure out exoplanetary systems, and their migrations, they should follow Art Winfree's Law. The many Trappist-1 articles describe the glitter--not the gold.

As I explain above, the 4 "arrow moments" in the video show this exact pattern in two complete cycles. And these cycles will divide equally into a global round trip around the star. Based on my guess of 24 alignment shifts in 360 degrees, there would be 12 complete cycles in a full 360 degree composite trip around the star.

Jun 11, 2017
Guide to the video: planet 5 is light blue. Planet 6 is purple. Planet 7 is pink. When planet 5 completes about 4 orbits, planet 6 completes about 3, and planet 2 completes about 2.

The 4 arrow moments in the video show 5 and 7 on opposite sides of their sun, always. Planet 6 is on the same side as planet 5 in one arrow moment, and then, in the next arrow moment, on the same side as planet 7.

This pattern is stable because in this manner these three planets balance their gravitational load on the sun, and also on each other.

In addition, the four arrow moments show that these 3 planets dance around their sun in these arrow moment triplets in 24 equally spaced "arrow" steps. Why 24? That's because planet 1 makes almost 24 orbits when planet 7 almost completes almost 2. This is "near resonance."

See Wikipedia, Trappist-1. Subheading: "orbital near-resonance."

Jun 11, 2017
Correction: planet 2 reference above is a mistake. Should say planet 7.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more