From: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Published June 7, 2017 04:51 PM

Flares May Threaten Planet Habitability Near Red Dwarfs

Cool dwarf stars are hot targets for exoplanet hunting right now. The discoveries of planets in the habitable zones of the TRAPPIST-1 and LHS 1140 systems, for example, suggest that Earth-sized worlds might circle billions of red dwarf stars, the most common type of star in our galaxy. But, like our own sun, many of these stars erupt with intense flares. Are red dwarfs really as friendly to life as they appear, or do these flares make the surfaces of any orbiting planets inhospitable?

To address this question, a team of scientists has combed 10 years of ultraviolet observations by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft looking for rapid increases in the brightness of stars due to flares. Flares emit radiation across a wide swath of wavelengths, with a significant fraction of their total energy released in the ultraviolet bands where GALEX observed. At the same time, the red dwarfs from which the flares arise are relatively dim in ultraviolet. This contrast, combined with the GALEX detectors' sensitivity to fast changes, allowed the team to measure events with less total energy than many previously detected flares. This is important because, although individually less energetic and therefore less hostile to life, smaller flares might be much more frequent and add up over time to create an inhospitable environment.

"What if planets are constantly bathed by these smaller, but still significant, flares?" asked Scott Fleming of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. "There could be a cumulative effect."

Read more at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This illustration shows a red dwarf star orbited by a hypothetical exoplanet. Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

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