Atmospheres in the TRAPPIST-1 System Should be Long Gone

Illustration of the Trappist-1 system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trappist-1 is a fascinating exoplanetary system. Seven worlds orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light-years away. All of the worlds are similar to Earth in mass and size, and 3 or 4 of them are potentially habitable. Imagine exploring a system of life-rich worlds within easy traveling distance of each other. It’s a wonderful dream, but as a new study shows it isn’t likely that life exists in the system. It’s more likely the planets are barren and stripped of their atmospheres.

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GJ 367b is Another Dead World Orbiting a Red Dwarf

This artist's concept illustrates a young, red dwarf star surrounded by three planets. There's growing evidence that red dwarfs place serious limits on exoplanet habitability. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech - NASA Image of the Day, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17104843

Red dwarf exoplanet habitability is a hot topic in space science. These small dim stars host lots of exoplanets, including small rocky ones the size of Earth. But the little stars emit extremely powerful flares that can damage and strip away atmospheres.

If we’re ever going to understand red dwarf habitability, we need to understand the atmospheres of the exoplanets that orbit them.

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Even the Calmest Red Dwarfs are Wilder than the Sun

An artist's conception of a violent flare erupting from the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. Such flares can obliterate atmospheres of nearby planets. Credit: NRAO/S. Dagnello.
An artist's conception of a violent flare erupting from the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. Such flares can obliterate atmospheres of nearby planets. Credit: NRAO/S. Dagnello.

There’s something menacing about red dwarfs. Human eyes are accustomed to our benevolent yellow Sun and the warm light it shines on our glorious, life-covered planet. But red dwarfs can seem moody, ill-tempered, and even foreboding.

For long periods of time, they can be calm, but then they can flare violently, flashing a warning to any life that might be gaining a foothold on a nearby planet.

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Do Red Dwarfs Provide Enough Sunlight for Plants to Grow?

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

To date, 5,250 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,921 systems, with another 9,208 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, 195 planets have been identified as “terrestrial” (or “Earth-like“), meaning that they are similar in size, mass, and composition to Earth. Interestingly, many of these planets have been found orbiting within the circumsolar habitable zones (aka. “Goldilocks zone”) of M-type red dwarf stars. Examples include the closest exoplanet to the Solar System (Proxima b) and the seven-planet system of TRAPPIST-1.

These discoveries have further fueled the debate of whether or not these planets could be “potentially-habitable,” with arguments emphasizing everything from tidal locking, flare activity, the presence of water, too much water (i.e., “water worlds“), and more. In a new study from the University of Padua, a team of astrobiologists simulated how photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria) would fare on a planet orbiting a red dwarf. Their results experimentally demonstrated that oxygen photosynthesis could occur under red suns, which is good news for those looking for life beyond Earth!

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Earth-Sized Planet Found At One of the Lightest Red Dwarfs

Artist’s conception of a rocky Earth-mass exoplanet like Wolf 1069 b orbiting a red dwarf star. If the planet has retained its atmosphere, chances are high that it would feature liquid water and habitable conditions over a wide area of its dayside. Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Astronomers have found another Earth-sized planet. It’s about 31 light-years away and orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star. It’s probably tidally locked, which can be a problem around red dwarf stars. But the team that found it is optimistic about its potential habitability.

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Are Planets Tidally Locked to Red Dwarfs Habitable? It’s Complicated

habitable exoplanet interstellar message
Artist's impression of a habitable exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star. The habitability of the planets of red dwarf stars is conjectural (Credit ESO/M. Kornmesser public domain)

Astronomers are keenly interested in red dwarfs and the planets that orbit them. Up to 85% of the stars in the Milky Way could be red dwarfs, and 40% of them might host Earth-like exoplanets in their habitable zones, according to some research.

But there are some problems with their potential habitability. One of those problems is tidal locking.

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Could Life Survive on Frigid Exo-Earths? Maybe Under Ice Sheets

This artist's illustration shows what an icy exo-Earth might look like. A new study says liquid water could persist under ice sheets on planets outside of their habitable zones. Image Credit: NASA

Our understanding of habitability relies entirely on the availability of liquid water. All life on Earth needs it, and there’s every indication that life elsewhere needs it, too.

Can planets with frozen surfaces somehow have enough water to sustain life?

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Earthlike Worlds With Oceans and Continents Could be Orbiting red Dwarfs, Detectable by James Webb

“Go then, there are other worlds than these.” Or so Stephen King said in his famous Dark Tower series. As of yet, none of those worlds are known to be like Earth. But, according to some new simulations by researchers at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), finding a genuinely Earth-like world might be in the cards by the decade’s end.

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Life can Thrive Around Even the Smallest Stars

A starlight simulator (left) and when illuminated (right). Credit: La Rocca, et al

Photosynthesis is probably the most important chemical reaction for life on Earth. It is the process plants use to transform sunlight into energy it can use. Through it, plants can produce carbohydrates they can use (and we can eat when we harvest plants), generating oxygen as a by-product. Photosynthesis is why Earth’s atmosphere is about 20% oxygen. No photosynthesis, no life on Earth as we know it.

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Astronomers Look at Super-Earths That had Their Atmospheres Stripped Away by Their Stars

Figure 1: Artist’s conceptual image showing the sizes of the planets observed in this study. The radius of TOI-1634 is 1.5 times larger than Earth’s radius and TOI-1685 is 1.8 times larger. The planets would appear red, due to the light from the red dwarf stars they orbit. (Credit: Astrobiology Center, NINS)

As the planets of our Solar System demonstrate, understanding the solar dynamics of a system is a crucial aspect of determining habitability. Because of its protective magnetic field, Earth has maintained a fluffy atmosphere for billions of years, ensuring a stable climate for life to evolve. In contrast, other rocky planets that orbit our Sun are either airless, have super-dense (Venus), or have very thin atmospheres (Mars) due to their interactions with the Sun.

In recent years, astronomers have been on the lookout for this same process when studying extrasolar planets. For instance, an international team of astronomers led by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) recently conducted follow-up observations of two Super-Earths that orbit very closely to their respective stars. These planets, which have no thick primordial atmospheres, represent a chance to investigate the evolution of atmospheres on hot rocky planets.

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