Astronomers Discover Three New Earths 160 Light-Years Away – But Can Human Life Survive On Them?

Friday, 08 June 2018 - 12:30PM
Astronomy
Space
Friday, 08 June 2018 - 12:30PM
Astronomers Discover Three New Earths 160 Light-Years Away – But Can Human Life Survive On Them?
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Gabriel Pérez Díaz, SMM (IAC)
On the heels of the discovery that Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to our own) may be able to support life, two new star systems have been spotted by the Kepler Space Telescope K2 mission – including one with three rocky, distinctly Earth-like planets. Despite the fact that they're much farther from us that the Centauri planets, it's heartening to see even more Earth-like planets join the roster. Although scientists still need to figure out their masses, atmospheres, and other physical characteristics, these planets will now join the ranks of the over 3,700 exoplanets and 2,700 star systems confirmed by NASA.



The three planets in question are orbiting the red dwarf star K2-239, which is located in the Sextant constellation, about 50 parsecs (160 light-years) from the Sun. Be warned, red dwarfs aren't the best stars for developing life due to their habit of throwing out huge explosions of solar radiation, which can strip huge amounts of oxygen from a nearby planet's atmosphere. Life has to follow different rules in a red dwarf system, according to Vladimir Airapetian, a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center:

Opening quote
"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."
Closing quote


All explosive radiation aside... Because red dwarf systems are relatively small, cool, and numerous in our galaxy, they're some of the most likely candidates for supporting life. In fact, one of the closest and best exoplanet candidates for life – Proxima b – orbits another red dwarf called Proxima Centauri (which is part of the Alpha Centauri system).

Unfortunately, Proxima b turned out to be a cautionary tale rather than a success story: its red dwarf has already roasted the planet to a crisp. Looks like we need a Plan B for Proxima b.
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