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.
To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,144 extrasolar planets in 3,074 systems, with a further 5,094 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority of these planets were found by the Kepler Space Telescope, which spent nine years (between May of 2009 and February of 2018) monitoring distant stars for transit signals – where a planet passing in front of a star causes a dip in brightness.
And yet, even though it is now defunct, the data that Kepler accumulated over the years continues to lead to new discoveries. For instance, a transatlantic team of researchers recently found a signal in Kepler‘s archival data that eluded detection before. This signal indicates that there is a second planet orbiting Kepler-1649, an M-type red dwarf star located 302 light-years away.
Thanks to the Kepler mission and other efforts to find exoplanets, we’ve learned a lot about the exoplanet population. We know that we’re likely to find super-Earths and Neptune-mass exoplanets orbiting low-mass stars, while larger planets are found around more massive stars. This lines up well with the core accretion theory of planetary formation.
But not all of our observations comply with that theory. The discovery of a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a small red dwarf means our understanding of planetary formation might not be as clear as we thought. A second theory of planetary formation, called the disk instability theory, might explain this surprising discovery.
It turns out that the TRAPPIST-1 star may be a terrible host for the TRAPPIST planets announced in February.
The TRAPPIST-1 star, a Red Dwarf, and its 7 planets caused a big stir in February when it was discovered that 3 of the rocky planets are in the habitable zone. But now more data is coming which suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 star is much too volatile for life to exist on its planets.
Red Dwarfs are much dimmer than our Sun, but they also last much longer. Their lifetimes are measured in trillions of years, not billions. Their long lives make them intriguing targets in the search for habitable worlds. But some types of Red Dwarf stars can be quite unstable when it comes to their magnetism and their flaring.
A new study analyzed the photometric data on TRAPPIST-1 that was obtained by the K2 mission. The study, which is from the Konkoly Observatory and was led by astronomer Krisztián Vida, suggests that TRAPPIST-1 flares too frequently and too powerfully to allow life to form on its planets.
The study identified 42 strong flaring events in 80 days of observation, of which 5 were multi-peaked. The average time between flares was only 28 hours. These flares are caused by stellar magnetism, which causes the star to suddenly release a lot of energy. This energy is mostly in the X-ray or UV range, though the strongest can be seen in white light.
While it’s true that our Sun can flare, things are much different in the TRAPPIST system. The planets in that system are closer to their star than Earth is to the Sun. The most powerful flare observed in this data correlates to the most powerful flare observed on our Sun: the so-called Carrington Event.The Carrington Event happened in 1859. It was an enormously powerful solar storm, in which a coronal mass ejection struck Earth’s magnetosphere, causing auroras as far south as the Caribbean. It caused chaos in telegraph systems around the world, and some telegraph operators received electric shocks.
Earth survived the Carrington Event, but things would be much different on the TRAPPIST worlds. Those planets are much closer to their Sun, and the authors of this study conclude that storms like the Carrington Event are not isolated incidents on TRAPPIST-1. They occur so frequently that they would destroy any stability in the atmosphere, making it extremely difficult for life to develop. In fact, the study suggests that the TRAPPIST-1 storms could be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the storms that hit Earth.
A study from 2016 shows that these flares would cause great disturbances in the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the planets subjected to them. The models in that study suggest that it could take 30,000 years for an atmosphere to recover from one of these powerful flares. But with flares happening every 28 hours on TRAPPIST-1, the habitable planets may be doomed.
The Earth’s magnetic field helps protects us from the Sun’s outbursts, but it’s doubtful that the TRAPPIST planets have the same protection. This study suggests that planets like those in the TRAPPIST system would need magnetospheres of tens to hundreds of Gauss, whereas Earth’s magnetosphere is only about 0.5 Gauss. How could the TRAPPIST planets produce a magnetosphere powerful enough to protect their atmosphere?
It’s not looking good for the TRAPPIST planets. The solar storms that hit these worlds are likely just too powerful. Even without these storms, there are other things that may make these planets uninhabitable. They’re still an intriguing target for further study. The James Webb Space Telescope should be able to characterize the atmosphere, if any, around these planets.
Just don’t be disappointed if the James Webb confirms what this study tells us: the TRAPPIST system is a dead, lifeless, grouping of planets around a star that can’t stop flaring.
A recent find announced by astronomers may go a long ways towards understanding a crucial “missing link” between planets and stars.
The team, led by Friemann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame’s Justin R. Crepp, recently released an image of a brown dwarf companion to a star 98 light years or 30 parsecs distant. This discovery marks the first time that a T-dwarf orbiting a Sun-like star with known radial velocity acceleration measurement has been directly imaged.
Located in the constellation Eridanus, the object weighs in at about 52 Jupiter masses, and orbits a 0.95 Sol mass star 51 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant once every 320-1900 years. Note that this wide discrepancy stems from the fact that even though we’ve been following the object for some 17 years since 1996, we’ve yet to ascertain whether we’ve caught it near apastron or periastron yet: we just haven’t been watching it long enough.
The T-dwarf, known as HD 19467 B, may become a benchmark in the study of sub-stellar mass objects that span the often murky bridge between true stars shining via nuclear fusion and ordinary high mass planets.
Brown dwarfs are classified as spectral classes M, L, T, and Y and are generally quoted as having a mass of between 13 to 80 Jupiters. Brown dwarfs utilize a portion of the proton-proton chain fusion reaction to create energy, known as deuterium burning. Low mass red dwarf stars have a mass range of 80 to 628 Jupiters or 0.75% to 60% the mass of our Sun. The Sun has just over 1,000 times Jupiter’s mass.
Researchers used data from the TaRgeting bENchmark-objects with Doppler Spectroscopy (TRENDS) high-contrast imaging survey, and backed it up with more precise measurements courtesy of the Keck observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer or HIRES instrument.
TRENDS uses adaptive optics, which relies on precise flexing the telescope mirror several thousands of times a second to compensate for the blurring effects of the atmosphere. Brown dwarfs shine mainly in the infrared, and objects such as HD 19467 B are hard to discern due to their close proximity to their host star. In this particular instance, for example, HD 19467 B was over 10,000 times fainter than its primary star, and located only a little over an arc second away.
“This object is old and cold and will ultimately garner much attention as one of the most well-studied and scrutinized brown dwarfs detected to date,” Crepp said in a recent Keck observatory press release. “With continued follow-up observations, we can use it as a laboratory to test theoretical atmospheric models. Eventually we want to directly image and acquire the spectrum of Earth-like planets. Then, from the spectrum, we should be able to tell what the planet is made of, what its mass is, radius, age, etc… basically all of its relevant properties.
Discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a star’s habitable zone is currently the “holy grail” of exoplanet science. Direct observation also allows us to pin down those key factors, as well as obtain a spectrum of an exoplanet, where detection techniques such as radial velocity analysis only allow us to peg an upper mass limit on the unseen companion object.
This also means that several exoplanet candidates in the current tally of 1074 known worlds beyond our solar system also push into the lower end of the mass limit for substellar objects, and may in fact be low mass brown dwarfs as well.
Another key player in the discovery was the Near-Infrared Camera (second generation) or NIRC2. This camera works in concert with the adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope to achieve images in the near infrared with a better resolution than Hubble at optical wavelengths, perfect for brown dwarf hunting. NIRC2 is most well known for its analysis of stellar regions near the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy, and has obtained some outstanding images of objects in our solar system as well.
What is the significance of the find? Free floating “rogue” brown dwarfs have been directly imaged before, such as the pair named WISE J104915.57-531906 which are 6.5 light years distant and were spotted last year. A lone 6.5 Jupiter mass exoplanet PSO J318.5-22 was also found last year by the PanSTARRS survey searching for brown dwarfs.
“This is the first directly imaged T-dwarf (very cold brown dwarf) for which we have dynamical information independent of its brightness and spectrum,” team lead researcher Justin Crepp told Universe Today.
Analysis of brown dwarfs is significant to exoplanet science as well.
“They serve as an essential link between our understanding of stars and planets,” Mr. Crepp said. “The colder, the better.”
And just as there has been a controversy over the past decade concerning “planethood” at the low end of the mass scale, we could easily see the debate applied to the higher end range, as objects are discovered that blur the line… perhaps, by the 23rd century, we’ll finally have a Star Trek-esque classifications scheme in place so that we can make statements such as “Captain, we’ve entered orbit around an M-class planet…”
Something that’s always been fascinating in terms of red and brown dwarf stars is also the possibility that a solitary brown dwarf closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri could have thus far escaped detection. And no, Nibiru conspiracy theorists need not apply. Mr. Crepp notes that while possible, such an object is unlikely to have escaped detection by infrared surveys such as WISE. But what a discovery that’d be!