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.
Twenty-two light-years away, a rocky world orbits a red dwarf. It’s called LTT 1445Ac, and NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) found it in 2022. However, TESS was unable to gauge the small planet’s size.
That’s okay. The venerable Hubble took care of it.
Earth is our only example of a habitable planet, so it makes sense to search for Earth-size worlds when we’re hunting for potentially-habitable exoplanets. When astronomers found seven of them orbiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 system, people wondered if Earth-size planets are more common around red dwarfs than Sun-like stars.
What do you get when a hot young world orbits a wildly unstable young red dwarf? For AU Microsopii b, the answer is: flares from the star tearing away the atmosphere. That catastrophic loss happens in fits and starts, “hiccuping” out its atmosphere at one point and then losing practically none the next.
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.
Should we thank our well-behaved Sun for our comfy home on Earth?
Some stars behave poorly. They’re unruly and emit powerful stellar flares that can devastate life on any planets within range of those flares. New research into stellar flares on other stars makes our Sun seem downright quiescent.
Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of star in our neighbourhood, and probably in the Milky Way. Because of that, many of the Earth-like and potentially life-supporting exoplanets we’ve detected are in orbit around red dwarfs. The problem is that red dwarfs can exhibit intense flaring behaviour, much more energetic than our relatively placid Sun.
So what does that mean for the potential of those exoplanets to actually support life?
Star’s can be full of surprises; some of them nasty. While our own Sun appears pretty placid, science has shown us that’s not the case. Coronal mass ejections and solar flares are the Sun’s angry side.
And the Sun has only a mild case of the flares, compared to some other stars.
At times, it seems like there’s an indundation of announcements featuring discoveries of “Earth-like” planets. And while those announcements are exciting, and scientifically noteworthy, there’s always a little question picking away at them: exactly how Earth-like are they, really?
After all, Earth is defined by its relationship with the Sun.