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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Good News! Red Dwarfs Blast Their Superflares out the Poles, Sparing Their Planets From Destruction

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The only known life in the universe lives on a mid-size rocky planet that orbits a mid-size yellow star. That makes our planet a bit unusual. While small rocky planets are common in the galaxy, yellow stars are not. Small red dwarf stars are much more typical, making up about 75% of the stars in the Milky Way. This is why most of the potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve discovered orbit red dwarfs.

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A Recent Megaflare Shows that Proxima Centauri is not a Nice Place to Live

Artist's conception of a violent stellar flare erupting on neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. The flare is the most powerful ever recorded from the star, and is giving scientists insight into the hunt for life in M dwarf star systems, many of which have unusually lively stars. Credit: NRAO/S. Dagnello.

Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, has been a focal point of scientific study since it was first confirmed (in 2016). This terrestrial planet (aka. rocky) orbits Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located 4.2 light-years beyond our Solar System – and is a part of the Alpha Centauri system. In addition to its proximity and rocky composition, it is also located within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Until a mission can be sent to this planet (such as Breakthrough Starshot), astrobiologists are forced to postulate about the possibility that life could exist there. Unfortunately, an international campaign that monitored Proxima Centauri for months using nine space- and ground-based telescopes recently spotted an extreme flare coming from the star, one which would have rendered Proxima b uninhabitable.

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Even older red dwarf stars are pumping out a surprising amount of deadly radiation at their planets

Measuring x-rays from red dwarfs. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Most of the potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve discovered orbit small red dwarf stars. Red dwarfs make up about 75% of the stars in our galaxy. Only about 7.5% of stars are g-type like our Sun. As we look for life on other worlds, red dwarfs would seem to be their most likely home. But red dwarfs pose a serious problem for habitable worlds.

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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” X: What is the Firstborn Hypothesis?

Artist's impression of an exoplanet orbiting a low-mass star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that we are “early to the party”!

In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Firstborn Hypothesis that states that humanity could be the first intelligent life to emerge in our galaxy.

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Astronomers Thought They’d Found a Red Dwarf That Wasn’t Hostile to its Habitable Zone Planets. They Were Wrong

Artistic design of the super-Earth GJ 625 b and its star, GJ625 (Gliese 625). Credit: Gabriel Pérez/SMM (IAC)

In the past decade, the study of exoplanets has grown by leaps and bounds. At present, a total of 4,201 planets have been confirmed beyond the Solar System and another 5,481 candidates await confirmation. In the midst of all this, M-type red dwarf stars have become a focus of exoplanet research because they appear to be the most likely place where rocky (aka. Earth-like) planets can be found orbiting within the star’s habitable zone (HZ).

However, that does not mean that red dwarf stars are good candidates for hosting habitable planets. Take GJ 887, for example, one of the brightest M stars in the sky that has a system of two (possibly three) planets. In the past, this star was believed to be calm and stable, but new research by astronomers from Arizona State University has shown that GJ 887 might not be so calm as previously thought.

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How Did the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Get Their Water?

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2017, an international team of astronomers announced a momentous discovery. Based on years of observations, they found that the TRAPPIST-1 system (an M-type red dwarf located 40 light-years from Earth) contained no less than seven rocky planets! Equally exciting was the fact that three of these planets were found within the star’s Habitable Zone (HZ), and that the system itself has had 8 billion years to develop the chemistry for life.

At the same time, the fact that these planets orbit tightly around a red dwarf star has given rise to doubts that these three planets could maintain an atmosphere or liquid water for very long. According to new research by an international team of astronomers, it all comes down to the composition of the debris disk that the planets formed from and whether or not comets were around to distribute water afterward.

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The Perfect Stars to Search for Life On Their Planets

This infographic compares the characteristics of three classes of stars in our galaxy: Sunlike stars are classified as G stars; stars less massive and cooler than our Sun are K dwarfs; and even fainter and cooler stars are the reddish M dwarfs. The graphic compares the stars in terms of several important variables. The habitable zones, potentially capable of hosting life-bearing planets, are wider for hotter stars. The longevity for red dwarf M stars can exceed 100 billion years. K dwarf ages can range from 15 to 45 billion years. And, our Sun only lasts for 10 billion years. The relative amount of harmful radiation (to life as we know it) that stars emit can be 80 to 500 times more intense for M dwarfs relative to our Sun, but only 5 to 25 times more intense for the orange K dwarfs. Red dwarfs make up the bulk of the Milky Way's population, about 73%. Sunlike stars are merely 6% of the population, and K dwarfs are at 13%. When these four variables are balanced, the most suitable stars for potentially hosting advanced life forms are K dwarfs. Credits: NASA, ESA and Z. Levy (STScI)

We tend to think of our Earthly circumstances as normal. A watery, temperate world orbiting a stable yellow star. A place where life has persisted for nearly 4 billion years. It’s almost inevitable that when we think of other places where life could thrive, we use our own experience as a benchmark.

But should we?

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TESS Finds its First Earth-Sized World in the Habitable Zone of a Star

An artist's illustration of TOI 700d, an Earth-size exoplanet that TESS found in its star's habitable zone. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found its first Earth-sized planet located in the habitable zone of its host star. The find was confirmed with the Spitzer Space Telescope. This planet is one of only a few Earth-sized worlds ever found in a habitable zone.

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