On May 2, scientists from MIT, the University of Liège, and elsewhere announced they had discovered a planetary system, a mere 40 light years from Earth, that hosts three potentially habitable, Earth-sized worlds. Judging from the size and temperature of the planets, the researchers determined that regions of each planet may be suitable for life.
Now, in a paper published today in Nature, that same group reports that the two innermost planets in the system are primarily rocky, unlike gas giants such as Jupiter. The findings further strengthen the case that these planets may indeed be habitable. The researchers also determined that the atmospheres of both planets are likely not large and diffuse, like that of the Jupiter, but instead compact, similar to the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, and Mars.
The scientists, led by first author Julien de Wit, a postdoc in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, came to their conclusion after making a preliminary screening of the planets' atmospheres, just days after announcing the discovery of the planetary system.
On May 4, the team commandeered NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and pointed it at the system's star, TRAPPIST-1, to catch a rare event: a double transit, the moment when two planets almost simultaneously pass in front of their star. The researchers realized the planets would transit just two weeks before the event, thanks to refined estimates of the planets' orbital configuration, made by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which had already started to observe the TRAPPIST-1 system.
"We thought, maybe we could see if people at Hubble would give us time to do this observation, so we wrote the proposal in less than 24 hours, sent it out, and it was reviewed immediately," de Wit recalls. "Now for the first time we have spectroscopic observations of a double transit, which allows us to get insight on the atmosphere of both planets at the same time."