Are we alone? The quest to find the Holy Grail of life beyond Earth is certainly one of humanity’s greatest endeavors–and the answer to this profound question could change forever how we view ourselves, and how we perceive our own true place in the cosmic scheme of things. The search for life on other worlds begins in habitable zones–the “Goldilocks” region surrounding stars where the conditions are not too hot, not too cold, but just right for water to exist in its life-sustaining liquid phase–because life as we know it can only exist in the presence of liquid water. In February 2017, an interdisciplinary team of NASA scientists announced that they want to expand just how habitable zones are defined by taking into consideration the impact of stellar activity, which can pose a great danger to an alien world’s atmosphere, resulting in oxygen loss. NASA research indicates that habitable zones surrounding small, relatively cool red dwarf stars–the most common type of star in our Milky Way Galaxy–might not be able to support life because of frequent eruptions that hurl enormous storms of stellar material out into space from active, young red dwarf parent-stars.

“If we want to find an exoplanet that can develop and sustain life, we must figure out which stars make the best parents. We’re coming closer to understanding what kind of parent stars we need,” commented Dr. Vladimir Airapetian in a February 8, 2017 NASA Press Release. Dr. Airapetian is lead author of the paper describing the research, and a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

In order to determine a given star’s habitable zone, astronomers have traditionally considered the amount of light and heat the parent-star emits. Stars that are more massive than our own manufacture more light and heat than our Sun. Therefore, the habitable zone belonging to more massive stars must be farther out from the star. Stars that are comparatively small and cool sport habitable zones that are relatively close-in.

The bad news is that, along with heat and visible light, stars hurl out X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. The situation gets even worse because stars also produce eruptions in the form of flares and coronal mass ejections–collectively termed space weather.

One potential effect of this radiation is atmospheric erosion on a vulnerable exoplanet, in orbit around its parent-star. This happens because high-energy particles drag atmospheric molecules–such as hydrogen and oxygen–out into space. Hydrogen and oxygen are the two components that create water. Dr. Airapetian and his team’s new model for habitable zones takes this highly destructive effect into consideration.

Stellar Mysteries

Stars do not come in only one size. There are big stars, little stars, and stars of mid-size. The hunt for habitable planets frequently targets small, cool red dwarfs–the most numerous true stars in the Cosmos. These little stars, that shine with a light that is red, are relatively amenable to the detection of orbiting small planets that are about the same size as our Earth.

Unfortunately, for astronomers on the hunt for habitable worlds, “Red dwarfs are also prone to more frequent and powerful stellar eruptions than the Sun. To assess the habitability of planets around these stars, we need to understand how these various effects balance out,” explained Dr. William Danchi in the February 8, 2017 NASA Press Release. Dr. Danchi is a Goddard astronomer and co-author of the research paper.

Therefore, the exoplanet-offspring of a red dwarf star is unfortunate because it has to survive an extreme space environment–in addition to other stresses like tidal locking. Our much more fortunate Earth, in orbit around a Star that is small–but nonetheless more massive than a red dwarf– is well-protected from violent solar eruptions and bad space weather by its magnetic field, which essentially behaves much like the shields of the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek. Our own planet’s magnetic field serves the important function of deflecting approaching, potentially destructive, violent storms of energy. Earth is also protected by its distance from the fiery Sun because it orbits it at a comfortable 93,000,000 miles!

The habitable zone of a red dwarf is much closer to its parent-star than Earth’s more comfortably distant orbit around our Sun, The unfortunate exoplanet offspring of a red dwarf is doomed to endure much more powerful–and therefore destructive–space weather storming out from its merciless, red-hued stellar parent.

There is yet another important habitability factor–the star’s age. The team of NASA scientists determine a star’s age based on observations they have collected from NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope. Every day active young stars emit superflares, powerful flares, and eruptions that are at least 10 times stronger than those emitted by our Sun. This is in dramatic contrast to the red dwarfs’ more mature counterparts that resemble our middle-aged Sun today. For stars like our Sun, similar superflares only occur about once every century. Our Star is about 4.56 billion years old, and it has another 5 billion years to go before it must bid its final farewell to the Universe. Stars of our Sun’s mass “live” for about 10 billion years–which is why our Sun is considered to be in stellar midlife. 바카라사이트

“When we look at young red dwarfs in our Galaxy we see they’re much less luminous than our Sun today. By the classical definition, the habitable zone around red dwarfs must be 10 to 20 times closer-in than Earth is to the Sun. Now we know these red dwarf stars generate a lot of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions at the habitable zones of exoplanets through frequent flares and stellar storms,” Dr. Airapetian noted in the February 8, 2017 NASA Press Release.

Superflares result in atmospheric erosion when high-energy X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions rip molecules apart into their constituent atoms–and then ionize an unfortunate planet’s atmospheric gases. During ionization, radiation blasts against the atoms, and knocks off their clouds of electrons. Because electrons are considerably lighter than the freshly formed ions, they are able to escape to freedom from gravity’s merciless pull much more easily–and then go screaming out into interstellar space.

As is the case in some human relationships, opposites attract. Therefore as more and more negatively charged electrons are produced, they form a very powerful charge separation that attracts positively charged ions out of the atmosphere in a process termed ion escape.

 

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