Proxima Centauri Just Released a Deadly Flare, so it’s Probably not a Great Place for Habitable Planets

Since it’s discovery was announced in August of 2016, Proxima b has been an endless source of wonder and the target of many scientific studies. As the closest extra-solar planet to our Solar System – and a terrestrial planet that orbits within Proxima Centauri’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) – scientists have naturally wondered whether or not this planet could be habitable.

Unfortunately, many of these studies have emphasized the challenges that life on Proxima b would likely face, not the least of which is harmful radiation from its star. According to a recent study, a team of astronomers used the ALMA Observatory to detect a large flare emanating from Proxima Centauri. This latest findings, more than anything, raises questions about how habitable its exoplanet could be.

The study, titled “Detection of a Millimeter Flare from Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Meredith A. MacGregor, an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the team also included members from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the University of Colorado Boulder.

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

For the sake of their study, the team used data obtained by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) between January 21st to April 25th, 2017. This data revealed that the star underwent a significant flaring event on March 24th, where it reached a peak that was 1000 times brighter than the star’s quiescent emission for a period of ten seconds.

Astronomers have known for a long time that when compared to stars like our Sun, M-type stars are variable and unstable. While they are the smallest, coolest, and dimmest stars in our Universe, they tend to flare up at a far greater rate. In this case, the flare detected by the team was ten times larger than our Sun’s brightest flares at similar wavelengths.

Along with a smaller preceding flare, the entire event lasted fewer than two minutes of the 10 hours that ALMA was observing the star between January and March of last year. While it was already known that Proxima Centauri, like all M-type stars, experiences regular flare activity, this one appeared to be a rare event. However, stars like Proxima Centauri are also known to experienced regular, although smaller, X-ray flares.

All of this adds up to a bad case for habitability. As MacGregor explained in a recent NRAO press statement:

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare. Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

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

MacGregor and her colleagues also considered the possibility that Proxima Centauri is circled by several disks of dust. This was suggested by a previous study (also based on ALMA data) that indicated that the light output of both the star and flare together pointed towards the existence of debris belts around the star. However, after examining the ALMA data as a function of observing time, they were able to eliminate this as a possibility.

As Alycia J. Weinberger, also a researcher with the Carnegie Institution for Science and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“There is now no reason to think that there is a substantial amount of dust around Proxima Cen. Nor is there any information yet that indicates the star has a rich planetary system like ours.”

To date, studies that have looked at possible conditions on Proxima b have come to different conclusions as to whether or not it could retain an atmosphere or liquid water on its surface. While some have found room for “transient habitability” or evidence of liquid water, others have expressed doubt based on the long-term effects that radiation and flares from its star would have on a tidally-locked planet.

In the future, the deployment of next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to provide more detailed information on this system. With precise measurements of this star and its planet, the question of whether or not life can (and does) exist in this system may finally be answered.

And be sure to enjoy this animation of Proxima Centauri in motion, courtesy of NRAO outreach:

Further Reading: NRAO, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Two new Super-Earths Discovered Around a Red Dwarf Star

The search for extra-solar planets has turned up some very interesting discoveries. Aside planets that are more-massive versions of their Solar counterparts (aka. Super-Jupiters and Super-Earths), there have been plenty of planets that straddle the line between classifications. And then there were times when follow-up observations have led to the discovery of multiple planetary systems.

This was certainly the case when it came to K2-18, a red dwarf star system located about 111 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. Using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an international team of astronomers was recently examining a previously-discovered exoplanet in this system (K2-18b) when they noted the existence of a second exoplanet.

The study which details their findings – “Characterization of the K2-18 multi-planetary system with HARPS” – is scheduled to be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets – a consortium of scientists and students from the University of Montreal and McGill University.

Artist’s impression of a Super-Earth planet orbiting a Sun-like star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Led by Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Center for Planet Science and the University of Montréal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx), the team included members from the University of Geneva, the University Grenoble Alpes, and the University of Porto. Together, the team conducted a study of K2-18b in the hopes of characterizing this exoplanet and determining its true nature.

When K2-18b was first discovered in 2015, it was found to be orbiting within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone“). The team responsible for the discovery also determined that given its distance from its star, K2-18b’s surface received similar amounts of radiation as Earth. However, the initial estimates of the planet’s size left astronomers uncertain as to whether the planet was a Super-Earth or a mini-Neptune.

For this reason, Cloutier and his team sought to characterize the planet’s mass, a necessary step towards determining it’s atmospheric properties and bulk composition. To this end, they obtained radial velocity measurements of K2-18 using the HARPS spectrograph. These measurements allowed them to place mass constraints on previously-discovered exoplanet, but also revealed something extra.

As Ryan Cloutier explained in a UTSc press statement:

“Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting… If you can get the mass and radius, you can measure the bulk density of the planet and that can tell you what the bulk of the planet is made of.”

Artist’s impression of a super-Earth with a dense atmosphere, which is what scientists now believe K2-18b is. Credit: NASA/JPL

Essentially, their radial velocity measurements revealed that K2-18b has a mass of about 8.0 ± 1.9 Earth masses and a bulk density of 3.3 ± 1.2 g/cm³. This is consistent with a terrestrial (aka. rocky) planet with a significant gaseous envelop and a water mass fraction that is equal to or less than 50%. In other words, it is either a Super-Earth with a small gaseous atmosphere (like Earths) or “water world” with a thick layer of ice on top.

They also found evidence for a second “warm” Super Earth named K2-18c, which has a mass of 7.5 ± 1.3 Earth masses, an orbital period of 9 days, and a semi-major axis roughly 2.4 times smaller than K2-18b. After re-examining the original light curves obtained from K2-18, they concluded that K2-18c was not detected because it has an orbit that does not lie on the same plane. As Cloutier described the discovery:

“When we first threw the data on the table we were trying to figure out what it was. You have to ensure the signal isn’t just noise, and you need to do careful analysis to verify it, but seeing that initial signal was a good indication there was another planet… It wasn’t a eureka moment because we still had to go through a checklist of things to do in order to verify the data. Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet.”

Unfortunately, the newly-discovered K2-18c orbits too closely to its star for it to be within it’s habitable zone. However, the likelihood of K2-18b being habitable remains probable, thought that depends on its bulk composition. In the end, this system will benefit from additional surveys that will more than likely involve NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which is scheduled for launch in 2019.

Artist’s impression of Super-Earth orbiting closely to its red dwarf star. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

These surveys are expecting to resolve the latest mysteries about this planet, which is whether it is Earth-like or a “water world”. “With the current data, we can’t distinguish between those two possibilities,” said Cloutier. “But with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) we can probe the atmosphere and see whether it has an extensive atmosphere or it’s a planet covered in water.”

As René Doyon – the principal investigator for the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), the Canadian Space Agency instrument on board JWST, and a co-author on the paper – explained:

“There’s a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at. K2-18b is now one of the best targets for atmospheric study, it’s going to the near top of the list.”

The discovery of this second Super-Earth in the K2-18 system is yet another indication of how prevalent multi-planet systems are around M-type (red dwarf) stars. The proximity of this system, which has at least one planet with a thick atmosphere, also makes it well-suited to studies that will teach astronomers more about the nature of exoplanet atmospheres.

Expect to hear more about this star and its planetary system in the coming years!

Further Reading: University of Toronto Scarborough, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Closest Potentially-Habitable World Found Around “Quiet” Star

In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) extra-solar planet orbiting within the habitable zone of the nearby Proxima Centauri star system, just 4.25 light-years away. Naturally, news of this was met with a great deal of excitement. This was followed about six months later with the announcement of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1.

Well buckle up, because the ESO just announced that there is another potentially-habitable planet in our stellar neighborhood! Like Proxima b, this exoplanet – known as Ross 128b – is relatively close to our Solar System (10.8 light years away) and is believed to be temperate in nature. But on top of that, this rocky planet has the added benefit of orbiting a quiet red dwarf star, which boosts the likelihood of it being habitable.

The discovery paper, titled “A temperate exo-Earth around a quiet M dwarf at 3.4 parsecs“, was recently released by the ESO. The discovery team was led by Xavier Bonfils of the University of Grenoble Alpes, and included members from the Geneva Observatory, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the University of Buenos Aires, the University of Laguna, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), and the University of Porto.

This artist’s impression shows the temperate planet Ross 128b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The discovery was made using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. This observatory relies on measurements of a star’s Doppler shift in order to determine if it moving back and forth, a sign that it has a system of planets. Using the HARPS data, the team determined that a  rocky planet orbits Ross 128 (an M-type red dwarf star) at a distance of about 0.05 AU with a period of 9.9 days.

Despite its proximity to its host star, Ross 128b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth. This is due to the cool and faint nature of red dwarf stars like Ross 128, which has a surface temperature roughly half that of our Sun. From this, the discovery team estimated that Ross 128b’s equilibrium temperature is likely somewhere between -60 and 20°C – i.e. close to what we experience here on Earth.

As Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the Geneva Observatory – and a co-author on the discovery paper – indicated in an ESO press release:

This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.”

But what is most encouraging is the fact that Ross 128 is the “quietest” nearby star that is also home to an exoplanet. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type red dwarfs are particularly low in mass, dimmer and cooler. They are also the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies.

Unfortunately, they are also variable and unstable compared to other classes of star, which means they experience regular flare ups. This means that any planets which orbit them will be periodically subjected to deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. In comparison, Ross 128 is much quieter, meaning it experiences less in the way of flare activity, and planets orbiting it are therefore exposed to less radiation over time.

This means that, relative to Proxima b or those planets located within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone – Ross 128b is more likely to retain an atmosphere and support life. For those who are engaged in searches for exoplanets around M-type stars – or are of the opinion that red dwarfs are the best bet for finding habitable worlds – this latest discovery would seem to confirm that they are looking in the right spots!

As noted, red dwarfs are the most common in the Universe, and in recent years, many rocky planets (sometimes even a multi-planet system) have been found orbiting these stars. Combined with their natural longevity – which can remain in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years – red dwarf stars have understandably become a popular target for exoplanet-hunters.

In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils named their HARPS program “The Shortcut to Happiness” for this very reason. As he and his colleagues indicated, it is easier to detect small cool planets of Earth around smaller, dimmer M-type stars than it is around stars that are more similar to the Sun.

However, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical about the likelihood that any of these planets could be habitable (again, due to their variable nature). But this most recent discovery, along with recent research that indicates how tidally-locked  planets that orbit red dwarf stars could hold onto their atmospheres, is another possible indication that these fears may be for naught.

Being at a distance of about 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128b is currently the second-closest exoplanet to our Sun. However, Ross 128 itself is slowly moving closer towards us and will become our nearest stellar neighbor in roughly 79,000 years. At this point, Ross 128b will replace Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!

But of course, much remains to be found about this latest exoplanet. While the discovery team consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet based on its orbit, it remains uncertain as to whether it lies within, beyond, or on the cusp of the star’s habitable zone. However, further studies are expected to shed more light on this and other questions relating this potentially-habitable world.

Astronomers also anticipate that more temperature exoplanets will be discovered in the coming years, and that future surveys will be able to determine a great deal more about their atmospheres, composition and chemistry. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are expected to play a major role.

Not only will these and other instrument help turn up more exoplanet candidates, they will also be used in the hunt for biosignatures in planet’s atmospheres (i.e. oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, etc.). As Bonfils concluded:

New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterization. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterize a large fraction of these planets.”

At this juncture, the process of exoplanet discovery is moving beyond detection and getting into the process of characterization and detailed study. Even so, it is nice that we are still making groundbreaking discoveries in the field of detection. In the coming years, we may transition from looking for an Earth 2.0 to a point where weare actively studying several at once!

Further Reading: ESO, ESO (2)

Another Nearby Red Dwarf Star System, Another Possible Exoplanet Discovered!

In the past few years, there has been no shortages of extra-solar planets discoveries which orbit red dwarf stars. In 2016 and 2017 alone,  astronomers announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), a seven-planet system orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and super-Earths orbiting the nearby stars of LHS 1140 (LHS 1140b), and GJ 625 (GJ 625b).

In what could be the latest discovery, physicists at the University of Texas Arlington (UTA) recently announced the possible discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light years away. In the past, astronomers detected two exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832. But after conducting a series of computations, the UTA team indicated that an additional Earth-like planet could be orbiting the star.

The study which details their findings, titled “Dynamics of a Probable Earth-mass Planet in the GJ 832 System“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Dr. Suman Satyal – a physics researcher, lecturer and laboratory supervisor at UTA – the team sought to investigate the stability of planetary orbits around Gliese 832 using a numerical and detailed phase-space analysis.

Artistic representation of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 832c as compared with Earth. Credit: PHL/UPR Arecibo.

As indicated, two other exoplanets had been discovered around Gliese 832 in the past, including a Jupiter-like gas giant (Gliese 832b) in 2008, and the super-Earth (Gliese 832c) in 2014. In many ways, these planets could not be more different. In addition to their disparity in mass, they vary widely in terms of their orbits – with Gliese 832b orbiting at a distance of about 0.16 AU and Gliese 832c orbiting at a distance of 3 to 3.8 AU.

Because of this, the UTA team sought to determine if perhaps there was a third planet with a stable orbit between the two. To this end, they conducted numerical simulations for a three and four body system of planets with elliptical orbits around the star. These simulations took into account a large number of initial conditions, which allowed for  all possible states (aka. s phase-space simulation) of the planet’s orbits to be represented.

They then included the radial velocity measurements of Gliese 832, accounting for them based on the presence of planets with 1 to 15 Earth masses. The Radial Velocity (RV) method, it should be noted, determines the existence of planets around a star based on variations in the star’s velocity. In other words, the fact that a star is moving back and forth indicates that it is being influenced by the presence of a planetary system.

Simulating the star’s RV signal using a hypothetical system of planets also allowed the UTA team to constrain the average distances at which these planets would orbit the star (aka. their semi-major axes) and their upper mass-limits. In the end, their results provided strong indications for the existence of a third planet. As Dr. Satyal explained in a UTA press release:

“We also used the integrated data from the time evolution of orbital parameters to generate the synthetic radial velocity curves of the known and the Earth-like planets in the system. We obtained several radial velocity curves for varying masses and distances indicating a possible new middle planet.”

Diagram showing the possible orbit of a third exoplanet around Gliese 832, a star system located just 16 light years away. Credit: uta.edu/Suman Satyal

Based on their computations, this possible planet of the Gliese 832 system would be between 1 and 15 Earth masses and would orbit the star at a distance ranging from 0.25 to 2.0 AU. They also determined that it would likely have a stable orbit for about 1 billion years. As Dr. Satyal indicated, all signs coming from the Gliese 832 system point towards there being a third planet.

“The existence of this possible planet is supported by long-term orbital stability of the system, orbital dynamics and the synthetic radial velocity signal analysis,” he said. “At the same time, a significantly large number of radial velocity observations, transit method studies, as well as direct imaging are still needed to confirm the presence of possible new planets in the Gliese 832 system.”

Alexander Weiss, the UTA Physics Chair, also lauded the achievement, saying:

“This is an important breakthrough demonstrating the possible existence of a potential new planet orbiting a star close to our own. The fact that Dr. Satyal was able to demonstrate that the planet could maintain a stable orbit in the habitable zone of a red dwarf for more than 1 billion years is extremely impressive and demonstrates the world class capabilities of our department’s astrophysics group.”

Artist’s impression of a Super-Earth orbiting close to a red dwarf star. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Another interesting tidbit is that this planet’s orbit would place it beyond or just within Gliese 832’s habitable zone. Whereas the Super-Earth Gliese 832c has an eccentric orbit that places it at the inner edge of this zone, this third planet would skirt its outer edge at the nearest. In this sense, Gliese 832’s two Super-Earths could very well be Venus-like and Mars-like in nature.

Looking ahead, Dr. Satyal and his colleagues will be naturally be looking to confirm the existence of this planet, and other institutions are sure to conduct similar studies. This star system is yet another that is sure to be the subject of follow-up studies in the coming years, most likely from next-generation space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Further Reading: University of Texas Arlington, The Astrophysical Journal

Even Calm Red Dwarf Stars Blast Their Planets with Mini-Flares, Destroying their Habitability

Thanks to some rather profound discoveries, red dwarf stars (aka. M-type stars) have been a popular target for exoplanet hunters lately. While small, cool, and relatively dim compared to our Sun, red dwarf star systems are where many of the most recent and promising exoplanet finds have been made. These include Proxima b, the seven rocky planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and the super-Earth discovered around LHS 1140b.

Unfortunately, red dwarf stars pose a bit of a problem when it comes to habitability. In addition to being variable in terms of the light they put out, they also known for being unstable. According to a new study by a team of scientists – which was presented the this week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society – red dwarfs also experience mini-flares that could have a cumulative effect, thus rendering their orbiting planets uninhabitable.

For the sake of their study, titled “gPhoton: The GALEX Photon Data Archive“, the team relied on the ten years of ultraviolet observations made by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft. During its mission, which ran from 2003 to 2013, GALEX monitored stars to detect rapid increases in brightness – i.e. signs of solar flare activity. These flares emit radiation across many wavelengths, but a significant amount is released in the UV band.

Artist’s impression of the GALEX mission, which monitors ultraviolet throughout the Universe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Though not originally intended for exoplanet hunting, GALEX’s data proved very useful since red dwarfs are usually relatively dim in the ultraviolet band (a trait which makes flares particularly noticeable). Using this data, the team was able to measure events that were less intense than many previously detected flares. This was important, since red dwarf flares are known to be greater in frequency, but weaker in intensity.

It was also important from a habitability standpoint, since it is possible that frequent flaring could add up over time to create an inhospitable environment on orbiting planets. If planets like Proxima b are subject to radiation from smaller (but more frequent) flares, could there be a cumulative effect that could ultimately prevent life from emerging over time?

Such is the question that the team sought to address. To do this, they sorted through the ten years of GALEX data, which is held at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Led by Chase Million of Million Concepts at State College in Pennsylvania, their efforts led to the creation of gPhoton – a 130 terabyte database with millisecond-timing resolution.

This database was then examined with custom software developed by Million and Clara Brasseur of the STScI, which enabled them to analyze the UV data at the photon level. As Million indicated, the results were quite interesting. “We have found dwarf star flares in the whole range that we expected GALEX to be sensitive to,” he said, “from itty bitty baby flares that last a few seconds, to monster flares that make a star hundreds of times brighter for a few minutes.”

While many of the flares that GALEX noticed were similar in strength to those generated by our Sun, the dynamics of red dwarf star systems are quite different. Since they are cooler and less bright, rocky planets need to orbit closer to red dwarfs in order to be warm enough to maintain liquid water on their surfaces (i.e. be habitable). This proximity means that they would be subject to more of the energy produced by these flares.

Such flares would be capable of stripping away a planet’s atmosphere, and could also prevent life from arising on the surface. And over time, smaller flares could poison an environment, making it impossible for organic life to thrive. At present, team members Brasseur and Rachel Osten (also from the STScI) are examining other stars observed by GALEX and also Kepler to look for similar flares.

The team expects to find examples of hundreds of thousands of these flares, which could help shed additional light on just what effect they could have on planetary habitability in red dwarf star systems. But for the time being, the case for red dwarf habitability appears to have been weakened. And once again, it has to do with the instability and radiation produced by these cool customers.

In the future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2018) are expected to reveal vital information on the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets. Most of these reside in red dwarf star systems, where questions about their composition and ability to support life are waiting to be resolved. In addition, the mission can also expected to shed light on these planet’s ability to retain atmospheres.

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

On the plus side, this study has shown that archival data from missions that are no longer in operation can still be incredibly useful. As Don Neill, a research scientist at Caltech and a member of the GALEX collaboration, explained:

“These results show the value of a survey mission like GALEX, which was instigated to study the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time and is now having an impact on the study of nearby habitable planets. We did not anticipate that GALEX would be used for exoplanets when the mission was designed.”

These results were presented in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society, which will be taking place from June 4th to June 8th in Austin, Texas.

Further Reading: HubbleSite, The Astrophysical Journal

Super-Earth Planet Found in the Habitable Zone of a Nearby Star

M-type stars, also known as “red dwarfs”, have become a popular target for exoplanet hunters of late. This is understandable given the sheer number of terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets that have been discovered orbiting around red dwarf stars in recent years. These discoveries include the closest exoplanet to our Solar System (Proxima b) and the seven planets discovered around TRAPPIST-1, three of which orbit within the star’s habitable zone.

The latest find comes from a team of international astronomers who discovered a planet around GJ 625, a red dwarf star located just 21 light years away from Earth. This terrestrial planet is roughly 2.82 times the mass of Earth (aka. a “super-Earth”) and orbits within the star’s habitable zone. Once again, news of this discovery is prompting questions about whether or not this world could indeed be habitable (and also inhabited).

The international team was led by Alejandro Mascareño of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics (IAC), and includes members from the University of La Laguna and the University of Geneva. Their research was also supported by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIS), the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), and the National Institute For Astrophysics (INAF).

Diagram showing GJ 625’s habitable zone in comparison’s to the Sun’s. Credit: IAC

The study which details their findings was recently accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and appears online under the title “A super-Earth on the Inner Edge of the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 625“. According to the study, the team used radial-velocity measurements of GJ 625 in order to determine the presence of a planet that has between two and three times the mass of Earth.

This discovery was part of the HArps-n red Dwarf Exoplanet Survey (HADES), which studies red dwarf stars to determine the presence of potentially habitable planets orbiting them. This survey relies on the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher for the Northern hemisphere (HARPS-N) instrument – which is part of the 3.6-meter Galileo National Telescope (TNG) at the IAC’s Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma.

Using this instrument, the team collected high-resolution spectroscopic data of the GJ 625 system over the course of three years. Specifically, they measured small variations in the stars radial velocity, which are attributed to the gravitational pull of a planet. From a total of 151 spectra obtained, they were able to determine that the planet (GJ 625 b) was likely terrestrial and had a minimum mass of 2.82 ± 0.51 Earth masses.

Moreover, they obtained distance estimates that placed it roughly 0.078 AU from its star, and an orbital period estimate of 14.628 ± 0.013 days. At this distance, the planet’s orbit places it just within GJ 625’s habitable zone. Of course, this does not mean conclusively that the planet has conditions conducive to life on its surface, but it is an encouraging indication.

Tjhe Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, located on the island of La Palma. Credit: IAC

As Alejandro Suárez Mascareño explained in an IAC press release:

“As GJ 625 is a relatively cool star the planet is situated at the edge of its habitability zone, in which liquid water can exist on its surface. In fact, depending on the cloud cover of its atmosphere and on its rotation, it could potentially be habitable”.

This is not the first time that the HADES project detected an exoplanet around a red dwarf star. In fact, back in 2016, a team of international researchers used this project to discover 2 super-Earths orbiting GJ 3998, a red dwarf located about 58 ± 2.28 light years from Earth. Beyond HADES, this discovery is yet another in a long line of rocky exoplanets that have been discovered in the habitable zone of a nearby red dwarf star.

Such findings are very encouraging since red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the known Universe- accounting for an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. Combined with the fact that they can exist for up to 10 trillion years, red dwarf systems are considered a prime candidate in the search for habitable exoplanets.

But as with all other planets discovered around red dwarf stars, there are unresolved questions about how the star’s variability and stability could affect the planet. For starters, red dwarf stars are known to vary in brightness and periodically release gigantic flares. In addition, any planet close enough to be within the star’s habitable zone would likely be tidally-locked with it, meaning that one side would be exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.

Artist’s impression of of the exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

As such, additional observations will need to be made of this exoplanet candidate using the time-tested transit method. According to Jonay Hernández – a professor from the University of La Laguna, a researcher with the IAC and one of the co-authors on the study – future studies using this method will not only be able to confirm the planet’s existence and characterize it, but also determine if there are any other planets in the system.

“In the future, new observing campaigns of photometric observations will be essential to try to detect the transit of this planet across its star, given its proximity to the Sun,” he said. “There is a possibility that there are more rocky planets around GJ 625 in orbits which are nearer to, or further away from the star, and within the habitability zone, which we will keep on combing”.

According to Rafael Rebolo – one of the study’s co-authors from the Univeristy of La Laguna, a research with the IAC, and a member of the CSIS – future surveys using the transit method will also allow astronomers to determine with a fair degree of certainty whether or not GJ 625 b has the all-important ingredient for habitability – i.e. an atmosphere:

“The detection of a transit will allow us to determine its radius and its density, and will allow us to characterize its atmosphere by the transmitted light observe using high resolution high stability spectrographs on the GTC or on telescopes of the next generation in the northern hemisphere, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)”.

Artist’s impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

But what is perhaps most exciting about this latest find is how it adds to the population of extra-solar planets within our cosmic neighborhood. Given their proximity, each of these planets represent a major opportunity for research. And as Dr. Mascareño told Universe Today via email:

“While we have already found more than 3600 extra-solar planets, the exoplanet population in our near neighborhood is still somewhat unknown. At 21 ly from the Sun, GJ 625 is one of the 100 nearest  stars, and right now GJ 625 b is one of the 30 nearest exoplanets detected and the 6th nearest potentially habitable exoplanet.”

Once again, ongoing surveys of nearby star systems is providing plenty of potential targets in the search for life beyond our Solar System. And with both ground-based and space-based next-generation telescopes joining the search, we can expect to find many, many more candidates in the coming years. In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of GJ 625 b and its parent star:

Further Reading: arXiv, IAC

Discovery Of A Nearby Super Earth With Only 5 Times Our Mass

Red dwarf stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters in recent years. In addition to multiple exoplanets candidates being detected around stars like TRAPPIST-1, Gliese 581, Gliese 667C, and Kepler 296, there was also the ESO’s recent discovery of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

And it seems the trend is likely to continue, with the latest discovery comes from a team of European scientists. Using data from the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and HARPS-N instruments, they detected an exoplanet candidate orbiting around GJ 536 – an M-class red dwarf star located about 32.7 light years (10.03 parsecs) from Earth.

According to their study, “A super-Earth Orbiting the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 536“, this planet is a super-Earth – a class of exoplanet that has between more than one, but less than 15, times the mass of Earth. In this case, the planet boasts a minimum of 5.36 ± 0.69 Earth masses, has an orbital period of 8.7076 ± 0.0025 days, and orbits its sun at a distance of 0.06661 AU.

Artist's impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team was led by Dr. Alejandro Suárez Mascareño of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The discovery of the planet was part of his thesis work, which was conducted under Dr Rafael Rebolo – who is also a member of the IAC, the Spanish National Research Council and a professor at the University of Laguna. And while the planet is not a potentially habitable world, it does present some interesting opportunities for exoplanet research.

As Dr. Mascareño shared with Universe Today via email:

“GJ 536 b is a small super Earth discovered in a very nearby star. It is part of the group of the smallest planets with measured mass. It is not in the habitable zone of its star, but its relatively close orbit and the brightness of its star makes it a promising target for transmission spectroscopy IF we can detect the transit. With a star so bright (V 9.7) it would be possible to obtain good quality spectra during the hypothetical transit to try to detect elements in the  atmosphere of the planet. We are already designing a campaign for next  year, but I guess we won’t be the only ones.”

The survey that found this planet was part of a  joint effort between the IAC (Spain) and the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland). The data came from the HARPS and HARPS-N instruments, which are mounted on the ESO’s 3.6 meter telescope at the La Silla Observstory in Chile and the 3.6 meter telescope at the La Palma Observatory in Spain. This was combined with photometric data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), which has observatories in Chile and Maui.

The research team relied on radial velocity measurements from the star to discern the presence of the planet, as well as spectroscopic observations of the star that were taken over a 8.6 year period. For all this, they not only detected an exoplanet candidate with 5 times the mass of Earth, but also derived information on the star itself – which showed that it has a rotational period of about 44 days, and magnetic cycle that lasts less than three years.

Artist's depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

By comparison, our Sun has a rotational period of 25 days and a magnetic cycle of 11 years, which is characterized by changes in the levels of solar radiation it emits, the ejection of solar material and in the appearance of sunspots. In addition, a recent study from the the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) showed that Proxima Centauri has a stellar magnetic cycle that lasts for 7 years.

This detection is just the latest in a long line of exoplanets being discovered around low-mass, low-luminosity, M-class (red dwarf) stars. And looking ahead, the team hopes to continue surveying GJ 536 to see if there is a planetary system, which could include some Earth-like planets, and maybe even a few gas giants.

“For now we have detected only one planet, but we plan to continue monitoring the star to search for other companions at larger orbital separations,” said Dr. Mascareño. “We estimate there is still room for other low-mass or even Neptune-mass planets at orbits from a hundred of days to a few years.”

The research also included scientists from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Geneva, the University of Grenoble, The Astrophysical and Planetological Insitute of Grenoble, Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, and the University of Porto, Portugal.

Further Reading: arXiv

How Can We Save The Sun?

Remember the movie Sunshine, where astronomers learn that the Sun is dying? So a plucky team of astronauts take a nuclear bomb to the Sun, and try to jump-start it with a massive explosion. Yeah, there’s so much wrong in that movie that I don’t know where to start. So I just won’t.

Seriously, a nuclear bomb to cure a dying Sun?

Here’s the thing, the Sun is actually dying. It’s just that it’s going to take about another 5 billion years to run of fuel in its core. And when it does, Cillian Murphy won’t be able to restart it with a big nuke.

But the Sun doesn’t have to die so soon. It’s made of the same hydrogen and helium as the much less massive red dwarf stars. And these stars are expected to last for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years.

Is there anything we can do to save the Sun, or jump-start it when it runs out of fuel in the core?

First, let me explain the problem. The Sun is a main sequence star, and it measures 1.4 million kilometers across. Like ogres and onions, the Sun is made of layers.

The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
The interior structure of the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The innermost layer is the core. That’s the region where the temperature and pressure is so great that atoms of hydrogen are mashed together so tightly they can fuse into helium. This fusion reaction is exothermic, which means that it gives off more energy than it consumes.

The excess energy is released as gamma radiation, which then makes its way through the star and out into space. The radiation pushes outward, and counteracts the inward force of gravity pulling it together. This balance creates the Sun we know and love.

Outside the core, temperatures and pressures drop to the point that fusion can no longer happen. This next region is known as the radiative zone. It’s plenty hot, and the photons of gamma radiation generated in the core of the Sun need to bounce randomly from atom to atom, maybe for hundreds of thousands of years to finally escape. But it’s not hot enough for fusion to happen.

Outside the radiative zone is the convective zone. This is where the material in the Sun is finally cool enough that it can move around like a lava lamp. Hot blobs of plasma pick up enormous heat from the radiative zone, float up to the surface of the Sun, release their heat and then sink down again.

The only fuel the Sun can use for fusion is in the core, which accounts for only 0.8% of the Sun’s volume and 34% of its mass. When it uses up that hydrogen in the core, it’ll blow off its outer layers into space and then shrink down into a white dwarf.

The radiative zone acts like a wall, preventing the mixing convective zone from reaching the solar core.

If the Sun was all convective zone, then this wouldn’t be a problem, it would be able to go on mixing its fuel, using up all its hydrogen instead of this smaller fraction. If the Sun was more like a red dwarf, it could last much longer.

GJ1214b, shown in this artist’s view, is a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Red dwarf stars burn for much longer than our Sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

In order to save the Sun, to help it last longer than the 5 billion years it has remaining, we would need some way to stir up the Sun with a gigantic mixing spoon. To get that unburned hydrogen from the radiative and convective zones down into the core.

One idea is that you could crash another star into the Sun. This would deliver fresh fuel, and mix up the Sun’s hydrogen a bit. But it would be a one time thing. You’d need to deliver a steady stream of stars to keep mixing it up. And after a while you would accumulate enough mass to create a supernova. That would be bad.

But another option would be to strip material off the Sun and create red dwarfs. Stars with less than 35% the mass of the Sun are fully convective. Which means that they don’t have a radiative zone. They fully mix all their hydrogen fuel into the core, and can last much longer.

Imagine a future civilization tearing the Sun into 3 separate stars, each of which could then last for hundreds of billions of years, putting out only 1.5% the energy of the Sun. Huddle up for warmth.

But if you want to take this to the extreme, tear the Sun into 13 separate red dwarf stars with only 7.5% the mass of the Sun. These will only put out .015% the light of the Sun, but they’ll sip away at their hydrogen for more than 10 trillion years.

Stick the Earth in the middle and you'd have some very odd sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²
Stick the Earth in the middle and you’d have some very odd sunrises and sunsets, not to mention orbital dynamics. Created with Universe Sandbox ²

But how can you get that hydrogen off the Sun? Lasers, of course. Using a concept known as stellar lifting, you could direct a powerful solar powered laser at a spot on the Sun’s surface. This would heat up the region, and generate a powerful solar wind. The Sun would be blasting its own material into space. Then you could use magnetic fields or gravity to direct the outflows and collect them into other stars. It boggles our imagination, but it would be a routine task for Type III Civilization engineers on star dismantling duty.

So don’t panic that our Sun only has a few billion years of life left. We’ve got options. Mind bendingly complicated, solar system dismantling options. But still… options.

Water-Trapped Worlds Possible Around Red Dwarf Stars?

Hunters of alien life may have a new and unsuspected niche to scout out.

A recent paper submitted by Associate Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University Kristen Menou to the Astrophysical Journal suggests that tidally-locked planets in close orbits to M-class red dwarf stars may host a very unique hydrological cycle. And in some extreme cases, that cycle may cause a curious dichotomy, with ice collecting on the farside hemisphere of the world, leaving a parched sunward side. Life sprouting up in such conditions would be a challenge, experts say, but it is — enticingly — conceivable.

The possibility of life around red dwarf stars has tantalized researchers before. M-type dwarfs are only 0.075 to 0.6 times as massive as our Sun, and are much more common in the universe. The life span of these miserly stars can be measured in the trillions of years for the low end of the mass scale. For comparison, the Universe has only been around for 13.8 billion years. This is another plus in the game of giving biological life a chance to get underway. And while the habitable zone, or the “Goldilocks” region where water would remain liquid is closer in to a host star for a planet orbiting a red dwarf, it is also more extensive than what we inhabit in our own solar system.

Gliese 581- an example of a potential habitable zone around a red dwarf star contrasted with our own solar system. (Credit: ESO/Henrykus under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).
Gliese 581- an example of a potential habitable zone around a red dwarf star contrasted with our own solar system. (Credit: ESO/Henrykus under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

But such a scenario isn’t without its drawbacks. Red dwarfs are turbulent stars, unleashing radiation storms that would render any nearby planets sterile for life as we know it.

But the model Professor Menou proposes paints a unique and compelling picture. While water on the permanent daytime side of a terrestrial-sized world tidally locked in orbit around an M-dwarf star would quickly evaporate, it would be transported by atmospheric convection and freeze out and accumulate on the permanent nighttime side. This ice would only slowly migrate back to the scorching daytime side and the process would continue.

Could these types of “water-locked worlds” be more common than our own?

The type of tidal locking referred to is the same as has occurred between the Earth and its Moon. The Moon keeps one face eternally turned towards the Earth, completing one revolution every 29.5 day synodic period. We also see this same phenomenon in the satellites for Jupiter and Saturn, and such behavior is most likely common in the realm of exoplanets closely orbiting their host stars.

The study used a dynamical model known as PlanetSimulator created at the University of Hamburg in Germany. The worlds modeled by the author suggest that planets with less than a quarter of the water present in the Earth’s oceans and subject to a similar insolation as Earth from its host star would eventually trap most of their water as ice on the planet’s night side.

Kepler data results suggest that planets in close orbits around M-dwarf stars may be relatively common. The author also notes that such an ice-trap on a water-deficient world orbiting an M-dwarf star would have a profound effect of the climate, dependent on the amount of volatiles available. This includes the possibility of impacts on the process of erosion, weathering, and CO2 cycling which are also crucial to life as we know it on Earth.

Thus far, there is yet to be a true “short list” of discovered exoplanets that may fit the bill. “Any planet in the habitable zone of an M-dwarf star is a potential water-trapped world, though probably not if we know the planet possesses a thick atmosphere.” Professor Menou told Universe Today. “But as more such planets are discovered, there should be many more potential candidates.”

Hard times in harsh climes-an artist's conception of the daytime side of a world orbiting a red dwarf star.
Hard times in harsh climes-an artist’s conception of the daytime side of a world orbiting a red dwarf star. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Being that red dwarf stars are relatively common, could this ice-trap scenario be widespread as well?

“In short, yes,” Professor Menou said to Universe Today. “It also depends on the frequency of planets around such stars (indications suggest it is high) and on the total amount of water at the surface of the planet, which some formation models suggest should indeed be small, which would make this scenario more likely/relevant. It could, in principle, be the norm rather than the exception, although it remains to be seen.”

Of course, life under such conditions would face the unique challenges. The daytime side of the world would be subject to the tempestuous whims of its red dwarf host sun in the form of frequent radiation storms. The cold nighttime side would offer some respite from this, but finding a reliable source of energy on the permanently shrouded night side of such as world would be difficult, perhaps relying on chemosynthesis instead of solar-powered photosynthesis.

On Earth, life situated near “black smokers” or volcanic vents deep on the ocean floor where the Sun never shines do just that. One could also perhaps imagine life that finds a niche in the twilight regions of such a world, feeding on the detritus that circulates by.

Some of the closest red dwarf stars to our own solar system include Promixa Centauri, Barnard’s Star and Luyten’s Flare Star. Barnard’s star has been the target of searches for exoplanets for over a century due to its high proper motion, which have so far turned up naught.

The closest M-dwarf star with exoplanets discovered thus far is Gliese 674, at 14.8 light years distant. The current tally of extrasolar worlds as per the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia stands at 919.

This hunt will also provide a challenge for TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the successor to Kepler due to launch in 2017.

Searching for and identifying ice-trapped worlds may prove to be a challenge. Such planets would exhibit a contrast in albedo, or brightness from one hemisphere to the other, but we would always see the ice-covered nighttime side in darkness. Still, exoplanet-hunting scientists have been able to tease out an amazing amount of information from the data available before- perhaps we’ll soon know if such planetary oases exist far inside the “snowline” orbiting around red dwarf stars.

Read the paper on Water-Trapped Worlds at the following link.

Tiny Stars with a Big Flares

This is an artist's concept of a red dwarf star undergoing a powerful eruption, called a stellar flare. A hypothetical planet is in the foreground. Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

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For a long time, astronomers have known that stars often have troubled childhoods. They suffer from frequent and violent flares. But eventually, as they settle onto the main sequence, stars grow out of their destructive ways, which is thankful for us since large flares could do some serious damage to our biosphere. A new study confirms expectations that some stars never outgrow their roguish ways and that the smallest stars can be prone to the most frequent flares.

The study uses data from the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS) survey conducted by the Hubble Space Telescope. This survey was conducted over a seven day period in 2006 and originally designed to search for transiting planets by repeatedly imaging over 200,000 stars for sings of transits. However, since the exploration contained so many red dwarf stars, the smallest and most common stars in the universe, a team led by Rachel Osten of the Space Telescope Science Institute was able to use it to constrain the rate of flares on these diminutive stars.

The team eventually discovered 100 stellar flares, some of which increased the overall brightness of their parent star by as much as 10%. In general, most flares were short, lasting on average a mere 15 minutes. Some stars flared multiple times. These flares weren’t limited to simply young stars, but also, highly evolved stars, including several variable stars which appeared to flare more often.

“We discovered that variable stars are about a thousand times more likely to flare than non-variable stars,” Adam Kowalski, another team member, says. “The variable stars are rotating fast, which may mean they are in rapidly orbiting binary systems. If the stars possess large star spots, dark regions on a star’s surface, that will cause the star’s light to vary when the spots rotate in and out of view. Star spots are produced when magnetic field lines poke through the surface. So, if there are big spots, there is a large area covered by strong magnetic fields, and we found that those stars had more flares.”

Part of the reason that dwarf stars are though to flare more comes from the fact that they have deep convection zones (shown by their lack of lithium in the photosphere which is destroyed by convection which drags it to depths hot enough to destroy it). This bulk movement of ionized particles creates a dynamo and strong magnetic fields on the star. When these fields become especially tangled, they can snap and spontaneously reform in a lower energy state. The energy lost is dumped into the stars outer layers, heating them with tremendous amounts of energy and releasing large amounts of ultraviolet, X-ray, and even gamma radiation as well as charged particles. In more extreme circumstances, the fields don’t immediately reform but swing outwards as they unwind themselves, dragging large amounts of the star with it, and flinging it outwards in a coronal mass ejection (CME).

One of the results of the enhanced magnetic activity is a larger number and size of sunspots. According to Osten, “Sunspots cover less than 1 percent of the Sun’s surface, while red dwarfs can have star spots that cover half of their surfaces.”