Scientists Just Dealt A Major Blow To The Search For Life

Artist's impression of a red dwarf and exoplanet. NASA/ESA/STScI/G. Bacon

Recently, these stars have shot to the fore in the search for life. Red dwarfs are the most common stars in our galaxy by far, making up three-quarters of our stellar population. They are also relatively dim and have planets in tight orbits, which makes these worlds easier to study than other stars as they transit (cross the face) of the star more frequently and noticeably.

In this past year, systems like TRAPPIST-1 and LHS 1140, with Earth-sized worlds in the habitable zones, have garnered a great deal of excitement. But the threat of flares has remained ever present. Now it seems we may have underestimated the threat.

That does not mean habitable worlds around these stars cannot exist. After all, the atmospheres of Earth and Venus both survive solar flares in our own Solar System. But it might put a dampener on just how habitable worlds like Proxima b could be.

We won’t know for sure until more powerful telescopes come online in the future though, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). These will be able to probe the atmospheres of distant planets, and look for signs of life.

“The argument of the flares and higher ultraviolet flux environment has been done several times before and it will be done again,” astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved in the research, told IFLScience.

“From my point of view, all these are arguments that need to be taken into account when we eventually detect their atmospheres (if any) and features in them.”

Time will tell if these worlds are dead and barren, or somehow defy the odds.

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