Even the Calmest Red Dwarfs are Wilder than the Sun

Artist's conception of a violent stellar flare erupting on neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. 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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59 New Planets Discovered in Our Neighborhood

An artist’s concept of a high-resolution image of an Earth-size planet in the cool range of the habitable zone of a nearby M dwarf. © José A. Caballero (CAB, CSIC-INTA), Javier Bollaín (Render Area)

The hunt for habitable extrasolar planets continues! Thanks to dedicated missions like Kepler, TESS, and Hubble, the number of confirmed extrasolar planets has exploded in the past fifteen years (with 5,272 confirmed and counting!). At the same time, next-generation telescopes, spectrometers, and advanced imaging techniques are allowing astronomers to study exoplanet atmospheres more closely. In short, the field is shifting from the process of discovery to characterization, allowing astronomers to more tightly constraint habitability.

Finding potentially-habitable “Earth-like” planets around these fainter stars is the purpose of the Calar Alto high-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical Echelle Spectrographs (CARMENES), located at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain. In a study that appeared in Astronomy & Astrophysics today, the CARMENES Consortium published data (Data Release 1) data from about 20,000 observations taken between 2016 and 2020. Among the measurements obtained from 362 nearby cool stars, the DR1 contained data on 59 new planets.

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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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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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Another Reason Red Dwarfs Might Be Bad for Life: No Asteroid Belts

In a recent study accepted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) investigated the potential for life on exoplanets orbiting M-dwarf stars, also known as red dwarfs, which are both smaller and cooler than our own Sun and is currently open for debate for their potential for life on their orbiting planetary bodies. The study examines how a lack of an asteroid belt might indicate a less likelihood for life on terrestrial worlds.

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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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A Planet has Been Found That Shifts In and Out of the Habitable Zone

Schematic diagram of the newly discovered Ross 508 planetary system. The green region represents the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the planetary surface. The planetary orbit is shown as a blue line. Credit: Astrobiology Center.

A super-Earth planet has been found orbiting a red dwarf star, only 37 light-years from the Earth. Named Ross 508 b, the newly found world has an unusual elliptical orbit that causes it to shift in and out of the habitable zone. Therefore, part of the time conditions would be conducive for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface, but other times it wouldn’t.

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Astronomers Have a New Way to Find Exoplanets in Cataclysmic Binary Systems

Artist’s impression of a cataclysmic variable system as seen from the surface of an orbiting planet Credit Departamento de Imagen y Difusion FIME-UANL/ Lic. Debahni Selene Lopez Morales D.R. 2022 Licence type Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Have you heard of LU Camelopardalis, QZ Serpentis, V1007 Herculis and BK Lyncis? No, they’re not members of a boy band in ancient Rome. They’re Cataclysmic Variables, binary stars that are so close together one star draws material from its sibling. This causes the pair to vary wildly in brightness.

Can planets exist in this chaotic environment? Can we spot them? A new study answers yes to both.

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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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