Could Life Survive In The TRAPPIST-1 System?

Artist's impression of TRAPPIST-1e. NASA

“If we were to land on one of the planets, don’t expect to see an oasis or green plants,” said Kaltenegger. “You would actually expect plants that basically use all of the light and don’t reflect any. So very dark vegetation that can take up any light it gets, any energy.”

O'Malley-James adds that, if photosynthesis is taking place on any of these worlds, it would likely be at a much slower pace than on Earth. “You could have plants that use redder wavelengths, and photosynthesize using slightly different chemical reactions,” he said. “We don’t really see that on Earth because everything is adapted to use the same kind of light range.”

The one major exception is in deep sea vents on Earth, where microbes have adapted infrared from the heat of the vents to carry out photosynthesis-style reactions. So we do know that, in theory, it’s possible to have life exist in these sorts of conditions.

We know life can exist in harsh radiation environments, too. Experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) have shown that tardigrades can survive unprotected in the vacuum of space; the same might be true for life in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

“Life could be everywhere,” said Kaltenegger. “It’s a completely open question what life can do, if it can evolve in these conditions.”

So what’s next? Well, NASA’s Kepler telescope is currently observing TRAPPIST-1 until March 4 (the data will be released to the public two days later), to further refine the orbits and sizes of the planets, and possibly even see more planets there.

Plenty more telescopes, including Hubble and almost definitely the JWST, will also be training their eyes on this fascinating system. The best is certainly yet to come.

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