Astronomers at the University of Washington have been using the exoplanet system known as TRAPPIST-1 as a laboratory, not for studying the planets in the system itself, but for learning how the James Webb Space Telescope might detect and study the atmospheres of the planets in the system. The study was led by Jacob Lusting-Yaeger and found that the James Webb telescope might be able to learn information about the atmospheres of planets in TRAPPIST-1 in its first year of operation.
The team says that the James Webb telescope is built and it has an idea how the telescope will operate. The team used computer modeling to determine the most efficient way to use the telescope to answer the most basic question they want an answer to. That question is, do the planets have atmospheres.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is 39 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Aquarius. The system is interesting to astronomers because it has seven rocky, Earth-like planets orbiting a host star. Three of the planets are in the star’s habitable zone.
One of the biggest questions about the TRAPPIST-1 system now is if the planets even have atmospheres. The star was much hotter when it formed than it is now and would have subjected all seven planets to ocean, ice, and atmospheric loss in the past.
The team says that once the planets have been confirmed to have atmospheres, scientists can then learn about the atmosphere of each planet. The team thinks that the James Webb telescope could learn a lot about the planets in a short period.
The astronomers think that the telescope could use its onboard tool called the Near-Infrared Spectrograph to detect the atmospheres of all seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with ten of fewer transits, assuming they have cloud-free atmospheres.
If the planets have global enshrouding clouds like Venus, detecting atmospheres might take 30 transits. Even if clouds are a factor, the telescope is still capable of detecting atmospheres of the planets. The telescope might also determine if the planets lost significant amounts of water in the past.