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Proxima Centauri Flare Burst Doesn’t Bode Well for Exoplanet Habitability

Using a powerful telescope to take measurements from light-years away, researchers have now captured several weather events on a star called Proxima Centauri — our solar system’s closest neighbor.

(CN) — Using a powerful telescope to take measurements from light-years away, researchers have now captured several weather events on a star called Proxima Centauri — our solar system’s closest neighbor. 

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star located 4.2 light-years from Earth, is orbited by two Earth-like planets, meaning space weather studies can be something of a proxy for studying how weather events affect our planet. A study published Wednesday in Astrophysical Journal sheds light on how likely it is that life can truly survive on the exoplanets that orbit Proxima Centauri. 

While the planets have been thought to be at least partially habitable because of their surface temperatures, intense bursts of radiation now detected suggest that the Earth-like exoplanets may be sterilized past the point of sustaining life. 

The research is the first to link two stellar weather events happening on a star other than our own sun. 

Of course, these “weather events” don’t mean heat waves and hurricanes. Stars produce radio bursts and optical flares, and the new study finds that the two are related, which could allow scientists to use the radio signals to report the weather in space. 

In the study, scientists report detecting on Proxima Centauri “a bright, long-duration optical flare, accompanied by a series of intense, coherent radio bursts.”

This is the first example of a stellar radio burst temporarily coinciding with a flare, “strongly indicating a causal relationship between these transient events,” and providing “the most compelling detection of a solar-like radio burst from another star to date.”

The specific burst involved is referred to as type IV, and it’s associated with events like coronal mass ejections, which push out billions of tons of plasma and magnetic energy from the sun’s corona. 

Sun-related weather events make changes to Earth’s atmosphere, too, at times disrupting aircraft tracking and causing power outages. But these are far less significant than the events on Proxima Centauri, researchers say, since Earth is so far from the sun’s surface. 

The Earth-like planets orbiting Proxima Centauri are thought to have habitable zones where they could sustain liquid water. But those zones are even closer to the star than Mercury is to our sun, said lead study author Andrew Zic, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney. Earth’s powerful magnetic field shields us from “intense blasts of solar plasma.” 

On the planets circling Proxima Centauri, stellar radiation seems to be making the chances dimmer that life can persist. 

"What our research shows is that this makes the planets very vulnerable to dangerous ionizing radiation that could effectively sterilize the planets,” Zic said in a statement about the work. 

"This is probably bad news on the space weather front. It seems likely that the galaxy's most common stars — red dwarfs — won't be great places to find life as we know it."  

The possibility remains, Zic said, that the planets around Proxima Centauri have protective magnetic fields of their own, like Earth. Such a magnetic field has not been observed around exoplanets, though, and may be tricky to detect. Searching for aurorae, like those around Earth and Jupiter, could help. 

"But even if there were magnetic fields, given the stellar proximity of habitable zone planets around M-dwarf stars, this might not be enough to protect them," Zic said.

Dashing hopes of extraterrestrial life, the research news comes in the same week that a former Israeli space security chief claimed that humans have had contact with space aliens from a "galactic federation," who feel we aren't ready to meet them. NASA responded to the claim, which is not supported by the scientific community, saying that while "we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe." 

The space weather study was led by researchers at the University of Sydney, who worked with other researchers from Australia and the United States, and used a powerful telescope housed at University of Western Australia’s Zadko Observatory. 

The Zadko telescope was the only instrument in Australia that could enable 10 nights of continuous Proxima Centauri observations, said David Coward, a professor at UWA’s School of Physics, Mathematics and Computing. 

“It was used in this study because it is the only one that can provide images in extremely short time frames, within seconds, to capture the detail of the storms and flares on the star,” Coward said in comments released with the research.

Coward added that images from Proxima Centauri can give us insight on what such extreme solar events would look like on Earth. 

“The big question is could life on our planet exist if it was bombarded with giant storms and radiation,” Coward said, “and Proxima Centauri might just hold the clue.” 

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