In their efforts to find evidence of life beyond our Solar System, scientists are forced to take what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach. Basically, this comes down to determining if planets could be “potentially habitable” based on whether or not they would be warm enough to have liquid water on their surfaces and dense atmospheres with enough oxygen.
This is a consequence of the fact that existing methods for examining distant planets are largely indirect and that Earth is only one planet we know of that is capable of supporting life. But what if planets that have plenty of oxygen are not guaranteed to produce life? According to a new study by a team from Johns Hopkins University, this may very well be the case.
Finding potentially habitable planets beyond our Solar System is no easy task. While the number of confirmed extra-solar planets has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades (3791 and counting!), the vast majority have been detected using indirect methods. This means that characterizing the atmospheres and surface conditions of these planets has been a matter of estimates and educated guesses.
Similarly, scientists look for conditions that are similar to what exists here on Earth, since Earth is the only planet we know of that supports life. But as many scientists have indicated, Earth’s conditions has changed dramatically over time. And in a recent study, a pair of researchers argue that a simpler form of photosynthetic life forms may predate those that relies on chlorophyll – which could have drastic implications in the hunt for habitable exoplanets.
In of August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our Solar System. In addition, they confirmed that this planet (Proxima b) orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if Proxima b could in fact be habitable.
Unfortunately, most of this research has not been very encouraging. For instance, many studies have indicated that Proxima b’s sun experiences too much flare activity for the planet to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. However, in a new NASA-led study, a team of scientists has investigated various climate scenarios that indicate that Proxima b could still have enough water to support life.
In the past few decades, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered within our galaxy. As of July 28th, 2018, a total of 3,374 extra-solar planets have been confirmed in 2,814 planetary systems. While the majority of these planets have been gas giants, an increasing number have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature and were found to be orbiting within their stars’ respective habitable zones (HZ).
However, as the case of the Solar System shows, HZs do not necessary mean a planet can support life. Even though Venus and Mars are at the inner and the outer edge of the Sun’s HZ (respectively), neither is capable of supporting life on its surface. And with more potentially-habitable planets being discovered all the time, a new study suggests that it might be time to refine our definition of habitable zones.
As Dr. Ramirez indicated in his study, the most generic definition of a habitable zone is the circular region around a star where surface temperatures on an orbiting body would be sufficient to maintain water in a liquid state. However, this alone does not mean a planet is habitable, and additional considerations need to be taken into account to determine if life could truly exist there. As Dr. Ramirez told Universe Today via email:
“The most popular incarnation of the HZ is the classical HZ. This classical definition assumes that the most important greenhouse gases in potentially habitable planets are carbon dioxide and water vapor. It also assumes that habitability on such planets is sustained by the carbonate-silicate cycle, as is the case for the Earth. On our planet, the carbonate-silicate cycle is powered by plate tectonics.
“The carbonate-silicate cycle regulates the transfer of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, surface, and interior of the Earth. It acts as a planetary thermostat over long timescales and ensures that there is not too much CO2 in the atmosphere (the planet gets too hot) or too little (the planet gets too cold). The classical HZ also (typically) assumes that habitable planets possess total water inventories (e.g. total water in the oceans and seas) similar in size to that on the Earth.”
This is what can be referred to as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists have looked for signs of habitability based on what we as humans are most familiar with. Given that the only example we have of habitability is planet Earth, exoplanet studies have been focused on finding planets that are “Earth-like” in composition (i.e. rocky), orbit, and size.
However, in recent years this definition has come to be challenged by newer studies. As exoplanet research has moved away from merely detecting and confirming the existence of bodies around other stars and moved into characterization, newer formulations of HZs have emerged that have attempted to capture the diversity of potentially-habitable worlds.
As Dr. Ramirez explained, these newer formulations have complimented traditional notions of HZs by considering that habitable planets may have different atmospheric compositions:
“For instance, they consider the influence of additional greenhouses gases, like CH4 and H2, both of which have been considered important for early conditions on both Earth and Mars. The addition of these gases makes the habitable zone wider than what would be predicted by the classical HZ definition. This is great, because planets thought to be outside the HZ, like TRAPPIST-1h, may now be within it. It has also been argued that planets with dense CO2-CH4 atmospheres near the outer edge of the HZ of hotter stars may be inhabited because it is hard to sustain such atmospheres without the presence of life.”
One such study was conducted by Dr. Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor with the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. According to a paper they produced in 2017, which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, exoplanet-hunters could find planets that would one day become habitable based on the presence ofvolcanic activity – which would be discernible through the presence of hydrogen gas (H2) in their atmospheres.
This theory is a natural extension of the search for “Earth-like” conditions, which considers that Earth’s atmosphere was not always as it is today. Basically, planetary scientists theorize that billions of years ago, Earth’s early atmosphere had an abundant supply of hydrogen gas (H2) due to volcanic outgassing and interaction between hydrogen and nitrogen molecules in this atmosphere is what kept the Earth warm long enough for life to develop.
In Earth’s case, this hydrogen eventually escaped into space, which is believed to be the case for all terrestrial planets. However, on a planet where there is sufficient levels of volcanic activity, the presence of hydrogen gas in the atmosphere could be maintained, thus allowing for a greenhouse effect that would keep their surfaces warm. In this respect, the presence of hydrogen gas in a planet’s atmosphere could extend a star’s HZ.
According to Ramirez, there is also the factor of time, which is not typically taken into account when assessing HZs. In short, stars evolve over time and put out varying levels of radiation based on their age. This has the effect of altering where a star’s HZ reaches, which may not encompass a planet that is currently being studied. As Ramirez explained:
“[I]t has been shown that M-dwarfs (really cool stars) are so bright and hot when they first form that they can desiccate any young planets that are later determined to be in the classical HZ. This underscores the point that just because a planet is currently located in the habitable zone, it doesn’t mean that it is actually habitable (let alone inhabited). We should be able to watch out for these cases.
Finally, there is the issue of what kinds of star system astronomers have been observing in the hunt for exoplanets. Whereas many surveys have examined G-type yellow dwarf star (which is what our Sun is), much research has been focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars of late because of their longevity and the fact that they believed to be the most likely place to find rocky planets that orbit within their stars’ HZs.
“Whereas most previous studies have focused on single star systems, recent work suggests that habitable planets may be found in binary star systems or even red giant or white dwarf systems, potentially habitable planets may also take the form of desert worlds or even ocean worlds that are much wetter than the Earth,” says Ramirez. “Such formulations not only greatly expand the parameter space of potentially habitable planets to search for, but they allow us to filter out the worlds that are most (and least) likely to host life.”
In the end, this study shows that the classical HZ is not the only tool that can be used to asses the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. As such, Ramirez recommends that in the future, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters should supplement the classical HZ with the additional considerations raised by these newer formulations. In so doing, they just may be able to maximize their chances for finding life someday.
“I recommend that scientists pay real special attention to the early stages of planetary systems because that helps determine the likelihood that a planet that is currently located in the present day habitable zone is actually worth studying further for more evidence of life,” he said. “I also recommend that the various HZ definitions are used in conjunction so that we can best determine which planets are most likely to host life. That way we can rank these planets and determine which ones to spend most of our telescope time and energy on. Along the way we would also be testing how valid the HZ concept is, including determining how universal the carbonate-silicate cycle is on a cosmic scale.”
Since its discovery was announced in August of 2016, Proxima b has been an endless source of wonder and the target of many scientific studies. In addition to being the closest extra-solar planet to our Solar System, this terrestrial planet also orbits within Proxima Centauri’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). As a result, scientists have naturally sought to determine if this planet could actually be home to extra-terrestial life.
Many of these studies have been focused on whether or not Proxima b could retain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface in light of the fact that it orbits an M-type (red dwarf) star. Unfortunately, many of these studies have revealed that this is not likely due to flare activity. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, Proxima Centauri released a superflare that was so powerful, it would have been lethal to any life as we know it.
As they indicate in their study, solar flare activity would be one of the greatest potential threats to planetary habitability in a system like Proxima Centauri. As they explain:
“[W]hile ozone in an Earth-like planet’s atmosphere can shield the planet from the intense UV flux associated with a single superflare, the atmospheric ozone recovery time after a superflare is on the order of years. A sufficiently high flare rate can therefore permanently prevent the formation of a protective ozone layer, leading to UV radiation levels on the surface which are beyond what some of the hardiest-known organisms can survive.”
In addition stellar flares, quiescent X-ray emissions and UV flux from a red dwarf star can would be capable of stripping planetary atmospheres over the course of several billion years. And while multiple studies have been conducted that have explored low- and moderate-energy flare events on Proxima, only one high-energy event has even been observed.
As the team indicates in their study, the March 2016 superflare was the first to be observered from Proxima Centauri, and was rather powerful:
“In March 2016 the Evryscope detected the first-known Proxima superflare. The superflare had a bolometric energy of 10^33.5 erg, ~10× larger than any previously-detected flare from Proxima, and 30×larger than any optically measured Proxima flare. The event briefly increased Proxima’s visible-light emission by a factor of 38× averaged over the Evryscope’s 2-minute cadence, or ~68× at the cadence of the human eye. Although no M-dwarfs are usually visible to the naked-eye, Proxima briefly became a magnitude-6.8 star during this superflare, visible to dark-site naked-eye observers.”
The superflare coincided with the three-month Pale Red Dot campaign, which was responsible for first revealing the existence of Proxima b. While monitoring the star with the HARPS spectrograph – which is part of the 3.6 m telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile – the campaign team also obtaining spectra on March 18th, 08:59 UT (just 27 minutes after the flare peaked at 08:32 UT).
The team also noted that over the last two years, the Evryscope has recorded 23 other large Proxima flares, ranging in energy from 10^30.6 erg to 10^32.4 erg. Coupled with rates of a single superflare detection, they predict that at least five superflares occur each year. They then combined this data with the high-resolution HARPS spectroscopy to constrain the superflare’s UV spectrum and any associated coronal mass ejections.
The team then used the HARPS spectra and the Evryscope flare rates to create a model to determine what effects this star would have on a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. This included how long the planet’s protective ozone layer would be able to withstand the blasts, and what effect regular exposure to radiation would have on terrestrial organisms.
“[T]he repeated flaring is sufficient to reduce the ozone of an Earth-like atmosphere by 90% within five years. We estimate complete depletion occurs within several hundred kyr. The UV light produced by the Evryscope superflare therefore reached the surface with ~100× the intensity required to kill simple UV-hardy microorganisms, suggesting that life would struggle to survive in the areas of Proxima b exposed to these flares.”
Essentially, this and other studies have concluded that any planets orbiting Proxima Centauri would not be habitable for very long, and likely became lifeless balls of rock a long time ago. But beyond our closest neighboring star system, this study also has implications for other M-type star systems. As they explain, red dwarf stars are the most common in our galaxy – roughly 75% of the population – and two-thirds of these stars experience active flare activity.
As such, measuring the impact that superflares have on these worlds will be a necessary component to determining whether or not exoplanets found by future missions are habitable. Looking ahead, the team hopes to use the Evryscope to examine other star systems, particularly those that are targets for the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.
“Beyond Proxima, Evryscope has already performed similar long-term high-cadence monitoring of every other Southern TESS planet-search target, and will therefore be able to measure the habitability impact of stellar activity for all Southern planetsearch-target M-dwarfs,” they write. “In conjunction with coronal-mass-ejection searches from long- wavelength radio arrays like the [Long Wavelength Array], the Evryscope will constrain the long-term atmospheric effects of this extreme stellar activity.”
For those who hoped that humanity might find evidence of extra-terrestrial life in their lifetimes, this latest study is certainly a letdown. It’s also disappointing considering that in addition to being the most common type of star in the Universe, some research indicates that red dwarf stars may be the most likely place to find terrestrial planets. However, even if two-thirds of these stars are active, that still leaves us with billions of possibilities.
It is also important to note that these studies help ensure that we can determine which exoplanets are potentially habitable with greater accuracy. In the end, that will be the most important factor when it comes time to decide which of these systems we might try to explore directly. And if this news has got you down, just remember the worlds of the immortal Carl Sagan:
“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”