Inward migration of the TRAPPIST-1 planets as inferred from their water-rich compositions

  • Nature Astronomyvolume 2pages297302 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41550-018-0411-6
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Multiple planet systems provide an ideal laboratory for probing exoplanet composition, formation history and potential habitability. For the TRAPPIST-1 planets, the planetary radii are well established from transits1,2, with reasonable mass estimates coming from transit timing variations2,3 and dynamical modelling4. The low bulk densities of the TRAPPIST-1 planets demand substantial volatile content. Here we show, using mass–radius–composition models, that TRAPPIST-1f and g probably contain substantial (≥50 wt%) water/ice, with TRAPPIST-1 b and c being significantly drier (≤15 wt%). We propose that this gradient of water mass fractions implies that planets f and g formed outside the primordial snow line whereas b and c formed within it. We find that, compared with planets in our Solar System that also formed within the snow line, TRAPPIST-1b and c contain hundreds more oceans of water. We demonstrate that the extent and timescale of migration in the TRAPPIST-1 system depends on how rapidly the planets formed and the relative location of the primordial snow line. This work provides a framework for understanding the differences between the protoplanetary disks of our Solar System versus M dwarfs. Our results provide key insights into the volatile budgets, timescales of planet formation and migration history of M dwarf systems, probably the most common type of planetary host in the Galaxy.

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C.T.U. acknowledges the support of Arizona State University through the SESE Exploration fellowship. The results reported herein benefited from collaborations and/or information exchange within NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) research coordination network sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. N.R.H. would like to thank CHW3 and acknowledges the support of the Vanderbilt Office of the Provost through the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data-intensive Astrophysics (VIDA) fellowship.

Author information


  1. School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

    • Cayman T. Unterborn
    • , Steven J. Desch
    •  & Alejandro Lorenzo
  2. Department of Physics & Astronomy, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

    • Natalie R. Hinkel


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C.T.U. and S.J.D. conceived the project and wrote the manuscript. C.T.U. performed the mass–radius–composition calculations. S.J.D. constructed the snow line model and performed the atmospheric retention calculations. N.R.H. supplied the input stellar data and helped to prepare the manuscript. C.T.U. and A.L. wrote the ExoPlex mass–radius–composition calculator.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cayman T. Unterborn.

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