New Horizons is so Far From Earth That the Positions of the Stars Look a Little Different From its Perspective

In July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft made history when it became the first robotic explorer to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This was followed by another first, when the NASA mission conducted the first flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on December 31st, 2018 – which has since been named Arrokoth. Now, on the edge of the Solar System, New Horizons is still yielding some groundbreaking views of the cosmos.

For example, we here on Earth are used to thinking that the positions of the stars are “fixed”. In a sense, they are, since their positions and motions are relatively uniform when seen from our perspective. But a recent experiment conducted by the New Horizons team shows how familiar stars like Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 (two of the closest stars in our neighbors) look different when viewed from the edge of the Solar System.

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A 2nd Planet has been Confirmed for Proxima Centauri

Our closest stellar neighbour is Proxima Centauri, a small red dwarf star about 4.2 light years away from us. It’s the third member of the Alpha Centauri group, and even though it’s so close, it can’t be seen with the naked eye. In 2016 astronomers discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centuari, named Proxima Centauri b. That planet was confirmed only a few days ago.

Now, astronomers have confirmed the existence of a second planet, Proxima Centauri c.

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Powerful Telescope Confirms There’s an Earth-Sized World Orbiting Proxima Centauri

The closest star to the Sun is a small red dwarf star known as Proxima Centauri. It is only 4.2 light-years away and is now known to have an Earth-sized planet in its habitable zone. That doesn’t mean there is life orbiting the nearest star, but its proximity should help us understand the possibilities.

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Astronomers Might Have Imaged a Second Planet Around Nearby Proxima Centauri – and it Might Have a Huge Set of Rings

In 2016, astronomers working for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of a terrestrial planet around Earth’s closest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this nearby extrasolar planet (Proxima b) caused no shortage of excitement because, in addition to being similar in size to Earth, it was found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Thanks to an INAF-led team, a second exoplanet (a super-Earth) was found early this year around Proxima Centauri using the Radial Velocity Method. Based on the separation between the two planets, another INAF-led team attempted to observe this planet using the Direct Imaging Method. While not entirely successful, their observations raise the possibility that this planet has a system of rings around it, much like Saturn.

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Giant Planets Could Form Around Tiny Stars in Just a Few Thousand Years

M-type (red dwarf) stars are cooler, low-mass, low-luminosity objects that make up the vast majority of stars in our Universe – accounting for 85% of stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. In recent years, these stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters, with multiple terrestrial (aka. Earth-like) planets confirmed around the Solar System’s nearest red dwarfs.

But what is even more surprising is the fact that some red dwarfs have been found to have planets that are comparable in size and mass to Jupiter orbiting them. A new study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has addressed the mystery of how this could be happening. In essence, their work shows that gas giants only take a few thousand years to form.

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New Instrument is Searching for Planets Around Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us, at 4.37 light-years (about 25 trillion miles) away. In 2016, astronomers discovered an exoplanet orbiting one of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. Spurred on by that discovery, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has developed a new instrument to find any other planets that might be in the Alpha Centauri system, and it’s busy looking right now.

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The Closest Star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a Planet in the Habitable Zone. Life Could be There Right Now

In August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of an exoplanet in the neighboring system of Proxima Centauri. The news was greeted with consider excitement, as this was the closest rocky planet to our Solar System that also orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if this planet could actually support life.

Unfortunately, most of the research so far has indicated that the likelihood of habitability are not good. Between Proxima Centauri’s variability and the planet being tidally-locked with its star, life would have a hard time surviving there. However, using lifeforms from early Earth as an example, a new study conducted by researchers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) has shows how life could have a fighting chance on Proxima b after all.

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The Closest Planet Ever Discovered Outside the Solar System Could be Habitable With a Dayside Ocean

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.

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Chandra Observatory Checks to Make Sure Alpha Centauri is Safe, You Know, in Case We Decide to Visit

At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.

Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!

The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation – (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this  is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

As Tom Ayres explained in a recent Chandra press release:

“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.

As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.

The respective habitable zones around Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:

“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”

Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.

As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.

What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.

In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.

In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!

Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Proxima Centauri Just Released a Flare so Powerful it was Visible to the Unaided Eye. Planets There Would Get Scorched

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.

The study, titled “The First Naked-Eye Superflare Detected from Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared online. The team was led by Howard Ward, a PhD candidate in physics and astronomy at the UNC Chapel Hill, with additional members from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Washington, the University of Colorado, the University of Barcelona and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

Artist impression of a red dwarf star like Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun. New analysis of ALMA observations reveal that Proxima Centauri emitted a powerful flare that would have created inhospitable conditions for planets in that system. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

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.

This occurred on March of 2016, when Proxima Centauri emitted a superflare that was so bright, it was visible to the naked eye. This flare was observed by the Evryscope, an array of telescopes – funded through the National Science Foundation‘s Advanced Technologies and Instrumentation (ATI) and Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) programs – that is pointed at every part of the accessible sky simultaneously and continuously.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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 Red Dots project is successor to the Pale Red Dot project, which discovered Proxima b last summer. Credit: ESO

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.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

“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.”

Further Reading: arXiv