Massive solar flares ‘may spark alien life’ on ‘habitable’ planet

Life could actually have found it easier to gain a foothold on a small rocky planet orbiting the Sun’s nearest neighbour than it did on Earth, says a leading astrophysicist.

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf type star just four light-years from Earth, is known to have at least two planets. One of them, designated Proxima Centauri b,is a little larger than the Earth and technically in its parent star’s habitable zone.

However, with a smaller, cooler star such as Proxima Centauri that means it’s actually quite close to its star – putting it in the firing line for the savage stellar flares that red dwarf stars are now known to throw out.

But, says Parke Loyd, fromArizona State University, the sudden surges of energy from the flares might make it difficult for life in the long term but they could also help the chemical processes that are thought to create life get started.

Loyd is part of a team that detected stellar flares coming from Proxima Centauri, and went on to realise the unlike the solar flares that come from our own Sun, they are intensely powerful in the ultraviolet waveband.

The team published their findings in the scientific journal Astrophysical Journal Letters on April 21.

“When you hear ultraviolet radiation,” she told The Conversation, “you’re probably thinking about the fact that people wear sunscreen to try to protect ourselves from ultraviolet radiation here on Earth.”

But while ultraviolet can be dangerous to life, and is even used to sterilise medical equipment, it can, says Parke provide “a better environment for life to be generated to begin with”.

Another factor to consider, she says, is that huge blasts of ultraviolet radiation could ever time strip away a planet’s atmosphere.

So while Proxima Centauri b might have had water on its surface an an atmosphere not unlike Earth’s at one point, regular doses of ultraviolet radiation could well have stripped that atmosphere away, leaving that precious surface water to boil away in to space.

“We hope the folks who build models of planetary atmospheres can take what our team has learned about these flares and try to figure out the odds for an atmosphere being sustained on this planet,” says Parke.

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