astrophysical journal letter

NASA finds planets of red dwarf stars may face oxygen loss in habitable zones

The search for life beyond Earth starts in habitable zones, the regions around stars where conditions could potentially allow liquid water - which is essential for life as we know it - to pool on a planet’s surface. New NASA research suggests some of these zones might not actually be able to support life due to frequent stellar eruptions - which spew huge amounts of stellar material and radiation out into space - from young red dwarf stars.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of NASA scientists wants to expand how habitable zones are defined, taking into account the impact of stellar activity, which can threaten an exoplanet’s atmosphere with oxygen loss. This research was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on Feb. 6, 2017.

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

To determine a star’s habitable zone, scientists have traditionally considered how much heat and light the star emits. Stars more massive than our sun produce more heat and light, so the habitable zone must be farther out. Smaller, cooler stars yield close-in habitable zones.

But along with heat and visible light, stars emit X-ray and ultraviolet radiation, and produce stellar eruptions such as flares and coronal mass ejections - collectively called space weather. One possible effect of this radiation is atmospheric erosion, in which high-energy particles drag atmospheric molecules - such as hydrogen and oxygen, the two ingredients for water - out into space. Airapetian and his team’s new model for habitable zones now takes this effect into account.

The search for habitable planets often hones in on red dwarfs, as these are the coolest, smallest and most numerous stars in the universe - and therefore relatively amenable to small planet detection.

“On the downside, red dwarfs are also prone to more frequent and powerful stellar eruptions than the sun,” said William Danchi, a Goddard astronomer and co-author of the paper. “To assess the habitability of planets around these stars, we need to understand how these various effects balance out.”

Another important habitability factor is a star’s age, say the scientists, based on observations they’ve gathered from NASA’s Kepler mission. Every day, young stars produce superflares, powerful flares and eruptions at least 10 times more powerful than those observed on the sun. On their older, matured counterparts resembling our middle-aged sun today, such superflares are only observed once every 100 years.

“When we look at young red dwarfs in our galaxy, we see they’re much less luminous than our sun today,” Airapetian said. “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.”

Superflares cause atmospheric erosion when high-energy X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions first break molecules into atoms and then ionize atmospheric gases. During ionization, radiation strikes the atoms and knocks off electrons. Electrons are much lighter than the newly formed ions, so they escape gravity’s pull far more readily and race out into space.

Opposites attract, so as more and more negatively charged electrons are generated, they create a powerful charge separation that lures positively charged ions out of the atmosphere in a process called ion escape.

“We know oxygen ion escape happens on Earth at a smaller scale since the sun exhibits only a fraction of the activity of younger stars,” said Alex Glocer, a Goddard astrophysicist and co-author of the paper. “To see how this effect scales when you get more high-energy input like you’d see from young stars, we developed a model.”

The model estimates the oxygen escape on planets around red dwarfs, assuming they don’t compensate with volcanic activity or comet bombardment. Various earlier atmospheric erosion models indicated hydrogen is most vulnerable to ion escape. As the lightest element, hydrogen easily escapes into space, presumably leaving behind an atmosphere rich with heavier elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.

But when the scientists accounted for superflares, their new model indicates the violent storms of young red dwarfs generate enough high-energy radiation to enable the escape of even oxygen and nitrogen - building blocks for life’s essential molecules.

“The more X-ray and extreme ultraviolet energy there is, the more electrons are generated and the stronger the ion escape effect becomes,” Glocer said. “This effect is very sensitive to the amount of energy the star emits, which means it must play a strong role in determining what is and is not a habitable planet.”

Considering oxygen escape alone, the model estimates a young red dwarf could render a close-in exoplanet uninhabitable within a few tens to a hundred million years. The loss of both atmospheric hydrogen and oxygen would reduce and eliminate the planet’s water supply before life would have a chance to develop.

“The results of this work could have profound implications for the atmospheric chemistry of these worlds,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard space scientist not involved with the study. “The team’s conclusions will impact our ongoing studies of missions that would search for signs of life in the chemical composition of those atmospheres.”

Modeling the oxygen loss rate is the first step in the team’s efforts to expand the classical definition of habitability into what they call space weather-affected habitable zones. When exoplanets orbit a mature star with a mild space weather environment, the classical definition is sufficient. When the host star exhibits X-ray and extreme ultraviolet levels greater than seven to 10 times the average emissions from our sun, then the new definition applies. The team’s future work will include modeling nitrogen escape, which may be comparable to oxygen escape since nitrogen is just slightly lighter than oxygen.

The new habitability model has implications for the recently discovered planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor. Airapetian and his team applied their model to the roughly Earth-sized planet, dubbed Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri 20 times closer than Earth is to the sun.

Considering the host star’s age and the planet’s proximity to its host star, the scientists expect that Proxima b is subjected to torrents of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet radiation from superflares occurring roughly every two hours. They estimate oxygen would escape Proxima b’s atmosphere in 10 million years. Additionally, intense magnetic activity and stellar wind - the continuous flow of charged particles from a star - exacerbate already harsh space weather conditions. The scientists concluded that it’s quite unlikely Proxima b is habitable.

“We have pessimistic results for planets around young red dwarfs in this study, but we also have a better understanding of which stars have good prospects for habitability,” Airapetian said. “As we learn more about what we need from a host star, it seems more and more that our sun is just one of those perfect parent stars, to have supported life on Earth.”


Using the world’s most powerful telescopes, an international team of astronomers has found a massive galaxy that consists almost entirely of dark matter.

The galaxy, Dragonfly 44, is located in the nearby Coma constellation and had been overlooked until last year because of its unusual composition: It is a diffuse “blob” about the size of the Milky Way, but with far fewer stars.

“Very soon after its discovery, we realized this galaxy had to be more than meets the eye. It has so few stars that it would quickly be ripped apart unless something was holding it together,” said Yale University astronomer Pieter van Dokkum, lead author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Van Dokkum’s team was able to get a good look at Dragonfly 44 thanks to the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini North telescope, both in Hawaii. Astronomers used observations from Keck, taken over six nights, to measure the velocities of stars in the galaxy. They used the 8-meter Gemini North telescope to reveal a halo of spherical clusters of stars around the galaxy’s core, similar to the halo that surrounds our Milky Way galaxy.

Star velocities are an indication of the galaxy’s mass, the researchers noted. The faster the stars move, the more mass its galaxy will have.

“Amazingly, the stars move at velocities that are far greater than expected for such a dim galaxy. It means that Dragonfly 44 has a huge amount of unseen mass,” said co-author Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto.

Scientists initially spotted Dragonfly 44 with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a telescope invented and built by van Dokkum and Abraham.

Dragonfly 44’s mass is estimated to be 1 trillion times the mass of the Sun, or 2 tredecillion kilograms (a 2 followed by 42 zeros), which is similar to the mass of the Milky Way. However, only one-hundredth of 1% of that is in the form of stars and “normal” matter. The other 99.99% is in the form of dark matter – a hypothesized material that remains unseen but may make up more than 90% of the universe.

The researchers note that finding a galaxy composed mainly of dark matter is not new; ultra-faint dwarf galaxies have similar compositions. But those galaxies were roughly 10,000 times less massive than Dragonfly 44.

“We have no idea how galaxies like Dragonfly 44 could have formed,” said Abraham. “The Gemini data show that a relatively large fraction of the stars is in the form of very compact clusters, and that is probably an important clue. But at the moment we’re just guessing.”

Van Dokkum, the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale, added: “Ultimately what we really want to learn is what dark matter is. The race is on to find massive dark galaxies that are even closer to us than Dragonfly 44, so we can look for feeble signals that may reveal a dark matter particle.”


Since its detection in 2014, the brown dwarf known as WISE 0855 has fascinated astronomers. Only 7.2 light-years from Earth, it is the coldest known object outside of our solar system and is just barely visible at infrared wavelengths with the largest ground-based telescopes.

Now, a team led by astronomers at UC Santa Cruz has succeeded in obtaining an infrared spectrum of WISE 0855 using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, providing the first details of the object’s composition and chemistry. Among the findings is strong evidence for the existence of clouds of water or water ice, the first such clouds detected outside of our solar system.

“We would expect an object that cold to have water clouds, and this is the best evidence that it does,” said Andrew Skemer, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. Skemer is first author of a paper on the new findings to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and currently available online.

A brown dwarf is essentially a failed star, having formed the way stars do through the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas and dust, but without gaining enough mass to spark the nuclear fusion reactions that make stars shine. With about five times the mass of Jupiter, WISE 0855 resembles that gas giant planet in many respects. Its temperature is about 250 degrees Kelvin, or minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, making it nearly as cold as Jupiter, which is 130 degrees Kelvin.

“WISE 0855 is our first opportunity to study an extrasolar planetary-mass object that is nearly as cold as our own gas giants,” Skemer said.

Previous observations of the brown dwarf, published in 2014, provided tentative indications of water clouds based on very limited photometric data. Skemer, a coauthor of the earlier paper, said obtaining a spectrum (which separates the light from an object into its component wavelengths) is the only way to detect an object’s molecular composition.

WISE 0855 is too faint for conventional spectroscopy at optical or near-infrared wavelengths, but thermal emission from the deep atmosphere at wavelengths in a narrow window around 5 microns offered an opportunity where spectroscopy would be “challenging but not impossible,” he said.

The team used the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph to observe WISE 0855 over 13 nights for a total of about 14 hours.

“It’s five times fainter than any other object detected with ground-based spectroscopy at this wavelength,” Skemer said. “Now that we have a spectrum, we can really start thinking about what’s going on in this object. Our spectrum shows that WISE 0855 is dominated by water vapor and clouds, with an overall appearance that is strikingly similar to Jupiter.”

The researchers developed atmospheric models of the equilibrium chemistry for a brown dwarf at 250 degrees Kelvin and calculated the resulting spectra under different assumptions, including cloudy and cloud-free models. The models predicted a spectrum dominated by features resulting from water vapor, and the cloudy model yielded the best fit to the features in the spectrum of WISE 0855.

Comparing the brown dwarf to Jupiter, the team found that their spectra are strikingly similar with respect to water absorption features. One significant difference is the abundance of phosphine in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Phosphine forms in the hot interior of the planet and reacts to form other compounds in the cooler outer atmosphere, so its appearance in the spectrum is evidence of turbulent mixing in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The absence of a strong phosphine signal in the spectrum of WISE 0855 implies that it has a less turbulent atmosphere.

“The spectrum allows us to investigate dynamical and chemical properties that have long been studied in Jupiter’s atmosphere, but this time on an extrasolar world,” Skemer said.


Gravitational waves may have come from a black hole pair born in a “mosh pit”

Back in February, astronomers detected the world’s first signal of gravitational waves — ripples through the fabric of space-time that come from powerful events like exploding stars. In the case of the signal detected in February, the gravitational waves came from a pair of black holes that spiraled closer and closer together until they merged.

But how did those black holes end up so close together in the first place? New research published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters might have an answer.

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Astronomers have captured the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart 67 million miles from Earth, using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery is published online today in Astrophysical Journal Letters [].

In a series of images taken over three days in January 2016, Hubble showed 25 fragments consisting of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the comet at a pace equivalent to the walking speed of an adult, said David Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA departments of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences; and Physics and Astronomy, who led the research team.

The images suggest that the roughly 4.5-billion-year-old comet, named 332P/Ikeya-Murakami, or Comet 332P, may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental United States.

These observations provide insight into the volatile behavior of comets as they approach the Sun and begin to vaporize, unleashing powerful forces.

“We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don’t know much about why or how,” Jewitt said. “The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, so we don’t have much chance to get useful data. With Hubble’s fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. That has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object.”

The three-day observations show that the comet shards brighten and dim as icy patches on their surfaces rotate into and out of sunlight. Their shapes change, too, as they break apart. The icy relics comprise about four percent of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide. They are separating at only a few miles per hour as they orbit the Sun at more than 50,000 miles per hour.

The Hubble images show that the parent comet changes brightness frequently, completing a rotation every two to four hours. A visitor to the comet would see the Sun rise and set in as little as an hour, Jewitt said.

The comet is much smaller than astronomers thought, measuring only 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields.

Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers.

Based on the Hubble data, the research team suggests that sunlight heated the surface of the comet, causing it to expel jets of dust and gas. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation, Jewitt said. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space. The research team calculated that the comet probably shed material over a period of months, between October and December 2015.

Jewitt suggests that some of the ejected pieces have themselves fallen to bits in a kind of cascading fragmentation. “We think these little guys have a short lifetime,” he said.

Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as Comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two. But the remnant wasn’t spotted until Dec. 31, 2015, by a telescope in Hawaii.

That discovery prompted Jewitt and colleagues to request Hubble Space Telescope time to study the comet in detail.

“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “But it’s starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion.”

The researchers estimate that comet 332P contains enough mass for 25 more outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the Sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s just the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it.”

The icy visitor hails from the Kuiper belt, a vast swarm of objects at the outskirts of our solar system. As the comet traveled across the system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit, Jewitt said.

Planet Nine: A world that shouldn’t exist

Earlier this year scientists presented evidence for Planet Nine, a Neptune-mass planet in an elliptical orbit 10 times farther from our Sun than Pluto. Since then theorists have puzzled over how this planet could end up in such a distant orbit.

New research by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) examines a number of scenarios and finds that most of them have low probabilities. Therefore, the presence of Planet Nine remains a bit of a mystery.

“The evidence points to Planet Nine existing, but we can’t explain for certain how it was produced,” says CfA astronomer Gongjie Li, lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Planet Nine circles our Sun at a distance of about 40 billion to 140 billion miles, or 400 - 1500 astronomical units. (An astronomical unit or A.U. is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun, or 93 million miles.) This places it far beyond all the other planets in our solar system. The question becomes: did it form there, or did it form elsewhere and land in its unusual orbit later?

Li and her co-author Fred Adams (University of Michigan) conducted millions of computer simulations in order to consider three possibilities. The first and most likely involves a passing star that tugs Planet Nine outward. Such an interaction would not only nudge the planet into a wider orbit but also make that orbit more elliptical. And since the Sun formed in a star cluster with several thousand neighbors, such stellar encounters were more common in the early history of our solar system.

However, an interloping star is more likely to pull Planet Nine away completely and eject it from the solar system. Li and Adams find only a 10 percent probability, at best, of Planet Nine landing in its current orbit. Moreover, the planet would have had to start at an improbably large distance to begin with.

CfA astronomer Scott Kenyon believes he may have the solution to that difficulty. In two papers submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, Kenyon and his co-author Benjamin Bromley (University of Utah) use computer simulations to construct plausible scenarios for the formation of Planet Nine in a wide orbit.

“The simplest solution is for the solar system to make an extra gas giant,” says Kenyon.

They propose that Planet Nine formed much closer to the Sun and then interacted with the other gas giants, particularly Jupiter and Saturn. A series of gravitational kicks then could have boosted the planet into a larger and more elliptical orbit over time.

“Think of it like pushing a kid on a swing. If you give them a shove at the right time, over and over, they’ll go higher and higher,” explains Kenyon. “Then the challenge becomes not shoving the planet so much that you eject it from the solar system.”

That could be avoided by interactions with the solar system’s gaseous disk, he suggests.

Kenyon and Bromley also examine the possibility that Planet Nine actually formed at a great distance to begin with. They find that the right combination of initial disk mass and disk lifetime could potentially create Planet Nine in time for it to be nudged by Li’s passing star.

“The nice thing about these scenarios is that they’re observationally testable,” Kenyon points out. “A scattered gas giant will look like a cold Neptune, while a planet that formed in place will resemble a giant Pluto with no gas.”

Li’s work also helps constrain the timing for Planet Nine’s formation or migration. The Sun was born in a cluster where encounters with other stars were more frequent. Planet Nine’s wide orbit would leave it vulnerable to ejection during such encounters. Therefore, Planet Nine is likely to be a latecomer that arrived in its current orbit after the Sun left its birth cluster.

Finally, Li and Adams looked at two wilder possibilities: that Planet Nine is an exoplanet that was captured from a passing star system, or a free-floating planet that was captured when it drifted close by our solar system. However, they conclude that the chances of either scenario are less than 2 percent.

Nearby star hosts Kuiper belt twin

Debris around a young star could shed light on the Solar System’s early days.

By Ron Cowen

Astronomers have discovered a bright ring of debris around a nearby star that resembles the Kuiper belt, a reservoir of comets and other frozen bodies that orbits the Sun beyond Neptune.

Because the ring circles a star that is only 15 million years old, studying it could reveal what the outer Solar System looked liked in its infancy, around 4.56 billion years ago. The Kuiper belt, a remnant of that era, contains leftover material from the formation of the icy outer planets.

The findings, which have been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters, were posted on the arXiv preprint server on 27 May.

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New research shows our Sun is capable of ‘superflares’. 

Our Sun could produce solar flares 1000x times larger than currently observed flares, according to a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters this week. 

Typical solar flares can have energies equivalent to a 100 million megaton bombs, but a superflare on our Sun could release energy equivalent to 100 billion megaton bombs, the scientists say.

Such a flare would have major effects on power grids, communications systems, and GPS and radio systems here on Earth.