Habitability of red dwarf systems

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
An artist's impression of a planet in orbit around a red dwarf.
This artist's concept illustrates a young red dwarf surrounded by three planets.

The habitability of red dwarf systems is determined by a large number of factors from a variety of sources. Although the low stellar flux, high probability of tidal locking, small circumstellar habitable zones, and high stellar variation experienced by planets of red dwarf stars are impediments to their planetary habitability, the ubiquity and longevity of red dwarfs are positive factors. Determining how the interactions between these factors affect habitability may help to reveal the frequency of extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

Intense tidal heating caused by the proximity of planets to their host red dwarfs is a major impediment to life developing in these systems.[1][2] When other tidal effects are considered, such as the extreme temperature differences created by one side of habitable-zone planets permanently facing the star and the other perpetually turned away and lack of planetary axial tilts,[3] reduce the probability of life around red dwarfs.[2] Non-tidal factors, such as extreme stellar variation, spectral energy distributions shifted to the infrared relative to the Sun, and small circumstellar habitable zones due to low light output, further reduce the prospects for life in red-dwarf systems.[2]

There are, however, several effects that increase the likelihood of life on red dwarf planets. Intense cloud formation on the star-facing side of a tidally locked planet may reduce overall thermal flux and drastically reduce equilibrium temperature differences between the two sides of the planet.[4] In addition, the sheer number of red dwarfs, which account for about 85%[5] of at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way,[6] increases the number of habitable planets that may be orbiting them; as of 2013, there are expected to be roughly 60 billion habitable red dwarf planets in the Milky Way.[7]

Red dwarf characteristics[edit]

Red dwarfs[8] are the smallest, coolest, and most common type of star. Estimates of their abundance range from 70% of stars in spiral galaxies to more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies,[9][10] an often quoted median figure being 73% of the stars in the Milky Way (known since the 1990s from radio telescopic observation to be a barred spiral).[11] Red dwarfs are either late K or M spectral type.[12] Given their low energy output, red dwarfs are never visible by the unaided eye from Earth; neither the closest red dwarf to the Sun when viewed individually, Proxima Centauri (which is also the closest star to the Sun), nor the closest solitary red dwarf, Barnard's star, is anywhere near visual magnitude.

Research[edit]

Luminosity and spectral composition[edit]

Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here, would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, probably inducing tidal lock. See Aurelia. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

For years, astronomers ruled out red dwarfs, with masses ranging from roughly 0.1 to 0.6 solar masses, as potential abodes for life. The low masses of the stars cause the nuclear fusion reactions at their cores to proceed exceedingly slowly, giving them luminosities ranging from a maximum of roughly 3 percent that of the Sun to a minimum of just 0.01 percent.[13] Consequently, any planet orbiting a red dwarf would have to have a low semimajor axis in order to maintain Earth-like surface temperature, from 0.3 astronomical units (AU) for a relatively luminous red dwarf like Lacaille 8760 to 0.032 AU for a smaller star like Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Solar System[14] (such a world would have a year lasting just six days).[15][16]

Much of the low luminosity of a red dwarf falls in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, with lower energy than the visible light in which the Sun peaks. As a result, photosynthesis on a red dwarf planet would require additional photons to achieve excitation potentials comparable to those needed in Earth photosynthesis for electron transfers, due to the lower average energy level of near-infrared photons compared to visible.[17] Having to adapt to a far wider spectrum to gain the maximum amount of energy, foliage on a habitable red dwarf planet would probably appear black if viewed in visible light.[17]

In addition, because water strongly absorbs red and infrared light, less energy would be available for aquatic life on red dwarf planets.[18] However, a similar effect of preferential absorption by water ice would increase its temperature relative to an equivalent amount of radiation from a Sun-like star, thereby extending the habitable zone of red dwarfs outward.[19]

Tidal effects[edit]

At the close distances that red dwarf planets would have to maintain to their stars in order to maintain liquid water at their surfaces, tidal locking to the host star is likely, causing the planet to rotate around its axis once for every revolution around the star; as a result, one side of the planet would eternally face the star and another side would perpetually face away, creating great extremes of temperature. For many years, it was believed that life on such planets would be limited to a ring-like region known as the terminator, where the star would always appear on the horizon.

In the past, it was believed that efficient heat transfer between the sides of the planet necessitate an atmosphere so thick as to disallow photosynthesis. Due to differential heating, it was argued, a tidally locked planet would experience fierce winds blowing continually towards the night side[citation needed] with permanent torrential rain at the point directly facing the local star,[20] the subsolar point. In the opinion of one author this makes complex life improbable.[21] Plant life would have to adapt to the constant gale, for example by anchoring securely into the soil and sprouting long flexible leaves that do not snap. Animals would rely on infrared vision, as signaling by calls or scents would be difficult over the din of the planet-wide gale. Underwater life would, however, be protected from fierce winds and flares, and vast blooms of black photosynthetic plankton and algae could support the sea life.[22]

In contrast to the previously bleak picture for life, 1997 studies by Robert Haberle and Manoj Joshi of NASA's Ames Research Center in California have shown that a planet's atmosphere (assuming it included greenhouse gases CO2 and H2O) need only be 100 millibar, or 10% of Earth's atmosphere, for the star's heat to be effectively carried to the night side, a figure well within the bounds of photosynthesis.[23] Research two years later by Martin Heath of Greenwich Community College has shown that seawater, too, could effectively circulate without freezing solid if the ocean basins were deep enough to allow free flow beneath the night side's ice cap. Additionally, a 2010 study concluded that Earth-like water worlds tidally locked to their stars would still have temperatures above 240 K (−33 °C) on the night side.[24] Climate models constructed in 2013 indicate that cloud formation on tidally locked planets would minimize the temperature difference between the day and the night side, greatly improving habitability prospects for red dwarf planets.[4] Further research, including a consideration of the amount of photosynthetically active radiation, has suggested that tidally locked planets in red dwarf systems might at least be habitable for higher plants.[25]

The existence of a permanent day side and night side is not the only potential setback for life around red dwarfs. Tidal heating experienced by planets in the habitable zone of red dwarfs less than 30% of the mass of the Sun may cause them to be "baked out" and become "tidal Venuses." [1] Combined with the other impediments to red dwarf habitability,[3] this may make the probability of many red dwarfs hosting life as we know it very low compared to other star types.[2] There may not even be enough water for habitable planets around many red dwarfs;[26] what little water found on these planets, in particular Earth-sized ones, may be located on the cold night side of the planet. In contrast to the predictions of earlier studies on tidal Venuses, though, this "trapped water" may help to stave off runaway greenhouse effects and improve the habitability of red dwarf systems.[27]

Variability[edit]

Red dwarfs are far more variable and violent than their more stable, larger cousins. Often they are covered in starspots that can dim their emitted light by up to 40% for months at a time. On Earth life has adapted in many ways to the similarly reduced temperatures of the winter. Life may survive by hibernating and/or by diving into deep water where temperatures could be more constant. More serious is that the oceans could perhaps freeze over during cold periods. After the cold has ended the planet’s albedo would be higher causing light from the red dwarf to be reflected, reducing planetary temperatures.

At other times, red dwarfs emit gigantic flares that can double their brightness in a matter of minutes.[28] Indeed, as more and more red dwarfs have been scrutinized for variability, more of them have been classified as flare stars to some degree or other. Such variation in brightness could be very damaging for life. Flares might also produce torrents of charged particles that could strip off sizable portions of the planet's atmosphere.[29] So scientists who subscribe to the Rare Earth hypothesis doubt that red dwarfs could support life amid strong flaring. Tidal-locking would probably result in a relatively low planetary magnetic moment. Active red dwarfs that emit coronal mass ejections would bow back the magnetosphere until it contacted the planetary atmosphere. As a result, the atmosphere would undergo strong erosion, possibly leaving the planet uninhabitable.[30]

Otherwise, it is suggested that if the planet had a magnetic field, it would deflect the particles from the atmosphere (even the slow rotation of a tidally locked M-dwarf planet—it spins once for every time it orbits its star—would be enough to generate a magnetic field as long as part of the planet's interior remained molten).[31] But actual mathematical models conclude that,[32][33] even under the highest attainable dynamo-generated magnetic field strengths, exoplanets with masses like that of Earth lose a significant fraction of their atmospheres by the erosion of the exobase's atmosphere by CME bursts and XUV emissions (even those Earth-like planets closer than 0.8 AU—affecting also GK stars— probably lose their atmospheres).

However, the violent flaring period of a red dwarf's lifecyle is estimated to only last roughly the first 1.2 billion years of its existence. If a planet forms far away from a red dwarf so as to avoid tidelock, and then migrates into the star's habitable zone after this turbulent initial period, it is possible that life may have a chance to develop.[34]

Another way that life could initially protect itself from radiation, would be remaining underwater until the star had passed through its early flare stage, assuming the planet could retain enough of an atmosphere to produce liquid oceans. The scientists who wrote Aurelia believed that life could survive on land despite a red dwarf flaring. Once life reached onto land, the low amount of UV produced by a quiescent red dwarf means that life could thrive without an ozone layer, and thus never need to produce oxygen.[17]

Abundance[edit]

There is, however, one major advantage that red dwarfs have over other stars as abodes for life: they live a long time. It took 4.5 billion years before humanity appeared on Earth, and life as we know it will see suitable conditions for as little as half a billion years more.[35] Red dwarfs, by contrast, could live for trillions of years, because their nuclear reactions are far slower than those of larger stars, meaning that life both would have longer to evolve and longer to survive. Furthermore, although the odds of finding a planet in the habitable zone around any specific red dwarf are unknown, the total amount of habitable zone around all red dwarfs combined is equal to the total amount around Sun-like stars given their ubiquity.[36] The first super-Earth with a mass of a 3 to 4 times that of Earth's found in the potentially habitable zone of its star is Gliese 581 g, and its star, Gliese 581, is indeed a red dwarf. Although tidally locked, it is thought possible that at its terminator liquid water may well exist.[37] The planet is thought to have existed for approximately 7 billion years and has a large enough mass to support an atmosphere.

Another possibility could come in the far future, when according to computer simulations a red dwarf becomes a blue dwarf as it is exhausting its hydrogen supply. As this kind of star is more luminous than the previous red dwarf, planets orbiting it that were frozen during the former stage could be thawed during the several billions of years this evolutionary stage lasts (5 billion years, for example, for a 0.16 solar mass star), giving life an opportunity to appear and evolve.[38]

In fiction[edit]

In Olaf Stapledon's 1937 science fiction novel Star Maker, one of the many alien civilizations in the Milky Way he describes is located in the terminator zone of a tidally locked planet of a red dwarf system. This planet is inhabited by intelligent plants that look like carrots with arms, legs, and a head, which "sleep" part of the time by inserting themselves in soil on plots of land and absorbing sunlight through photosynthesis, and which are awake part of the time, emerging from their plots of soil as locomoting beings who participate in all the complex activities of a modern industrial civilization. Stapledon also describes how life evolved on this planet.[39]

In Larry Niven's "Draco Tavern" stories, the highly advanced Chirpsithra aliens evolved on a tide-locked oxygen world around a red dwarf. However, no detail is given beyond that it was about 1 terrestrial mass, a little colder, and used red dwarf sunlight.

Superman's home, Krypton, was in orbit around a red star called Rao which in some stories is described as being a red dwarf.

In Stephen Baxter's Ark, after the earth is completely submerged by the oceans a small group of humans embark on an interstellar journey eventually making it to a planet named Earth III. The planet is cold, tidally locked and the plant life is black (in order to better absorb the light from the red dwarf).

See also[edit]

Learning materials from Wikiversity:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Rory Barnes; Kristina Mullins; Colin Goldblatt; Meadows, Victoria S.; Kasting, James F.; Rene Heller (2012). "Tidal Venuses: Triggering a Climate Catastrophe via Tidal Heating". arXiv:1203.5104 [astro-ph.EP].
  2. ^ a b c d ""Tidal Venuses" May Have Been Wrung Out To Dry". Universetoday.com. 2012-03-28. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  3. ^ a b "Life might not be possible around red dwarf stars". Io9.com. 2012-01-16. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  4. ^ a b Yang, J.; Cowan, N. B.; Abbot, D. S. (2013). "Stabilizing Cloud Feedback Dramatically Expands the Habitable Zone of Tidally Locked Planets". The Astrophysical Journal 771 (2): L45. arXiv:1307.0515. Bibcode:2013ApJ...771L..45Y. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/771/2/L45. 
  5. ^ Than, Ker (2006-01-30). "Astronomers Had it Wrong: Most Stars are Single". Space.com. TechMediaNetwork. Retrieved 2013-07-04. 
  6. ^ Staff (2013-01-02). "100 Billion Alien Planets Fill Our Milky Way Galaxy: Study". Space.com. Retrieved 2013-01-03. 
  7. ^ Paul Gilster (2012-03-29). "ESO: Habitable Red Dwarf Planets Abundant". Centauri-dreams.org. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  8. ^ The term dwarf applies to all stars in the main sequence, including the Sun.
  9. ^ van Dokkum, Pieter G. & Conroy, Charlie. "A substantial population of low-mess stars in luminous elliptical galaxies. Nature. 2010 468(7326):940
  10. ^ "Discovery Triples Number of Stars in Universe" Yale University. Published December 1, 2010. Retrieved December 17, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101201134158.htm
  11. ^ Dole, Stephen H. Habitable Planets for Man 1965 Rand Corporation report, published in book form--A figure of 73% is given for the percentage of red dwarfs in the Milky Way.
  12. ^ the term is sometimes used as coterminus with M class. K class stars tend toward an orange color.
  13. ^ Chabrier, G.; Baraffe, I.; Plez, B. (1996). "Mass-Luminosity Relationship and Lithium Depletion for Very Low Mass Stars". Astrophysical Journal Letters 459 (2): L91–L94. Bibcode:1996ApJ...459L..91C. doi:10.1086/309951. 
  14. ^ "Habitable zones of stars". NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Exobiology. University of Southern California, San Diego. Retrieved 2007-05-11. 
  15. ^ Ségransan, D. et al. (2003). "First radius measurements of very low mass stars with the VLTI". Astronomy and Astrophysics 397 (3): L5–L8. arXiv:astro-ph/0211647. Bibcode:2003A&A...397L...5S. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20021714. 
  16. ^ Williams, David R. (2004-09-01). "Earth Fact Sheet". NASA. Retrieved 2010-08-09. 
  17. ^ a b c Nancy Y. Kiang (April 2008). "The color of plants on other worlds". Scientific American. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  18. ^ Hoejerslev, N. K. (1986). "3.3.2.1 Optical properties of pure water and pure sea water". Subvolume A. Landolt-Börnstein - Group V Geophysics 3a. p. 395. doi:10.1007/10201933_90. ISBN 3-540-15092-7.  edit
  19. ^ Joshi, M.; Haberle, R. (2012). "Suppression of the water ice and snow albedo feedback on planets orbiting red dwarf stars and the subsequent widening of the habitable zone". Astrobiology 12 (1): 3–8. arXiv:1110.4525. Bibcode:2012AsBio..12....3J. doi:10.1089/ast.2011.0668. PMID 22181553. 
  20. ^ Joshi, M. (2003). "Climate model studies of synchronously rotating planets". Astrobiology 3 (2): 415–427. Bibcode:2003AsBio...3..415J. doi:10.1089/153110703769016488. 
  21. ^ "Astroprof’s Page » Gliese 581d". Astroprofspage.com. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  22. ^ Lewis Dartnell (April 2010). "Meet the Alien Neighbours: Red Dwarf World". Focus: 45. Archived from the original on 2010-03-31. Retrieved 2010-03-29. 
  23. ^ Joshi, M. M.; Haberle, R. M.; Reynolds, R. T. (October 1997). "Simulations of the Atmospheres of Synchronously Rotating Terrestrial Planets Orbiting M Dwarfs: Conditions for Atmospheric Collapse and the Implications for Habitability". Icarus 129 (2): 450–465. Bibcode:1997Icar..129..450J. doi:10.1006/icar.1997.5793. Retrieved 2007-08-11. 
  24. ^ Merlis, T. M.; Schneider, T. (2010). "Atmospheric dynamics of Earth-like tidally locked aquaplanets". Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems 2. doi:10.3894/JAMES.2010.2.13.  edit
  25. ^ Heath, Martin J.; Doyle, Laurance R.; Joshi, Manoj M.; Haberle, Robert M. (1999). "Habitability of Planets Around Red Dwarf Stars" (PDF). Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 29 (4): 405–424. doi:10.1023/A:1006596718708. PMID 10472629. Retrieved 2007-08-11. 
  26. ^ Jack J. Lissauer Planets formed in habitable zones of M dwarf stars probably are deficient in volatiles The Astrophysical Journal 660.2 (2007): 149–152
  27. ^ Kristen Menou (2013). "Water-Trapped Worlds". arXiv:1304.6472 [astro-ph.EP].
  28. ^ Croswell, Ken (27 January 2001). "Red, willing and able" (Full reprint). New Scientist. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  29. ^ Guinan, Edward F.; Engle, S. G.: "Future Interstellar Travel Destinations: Assessing the Suitability of Nearby Red Dwarf Stars as Hosts to Habitable Life-bearing Planets"; American Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #221, #333.02 Publication Date:01/2013 - http://adsabs.harvard.edu//abs/2013AAS...22133302G
  30. ^ Khodachenko, Maxim L.; et al. (2007). "Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) Activity of Low Mass M Stars as An Important Factor for The Habitability of Terrestrial Exoplanets. I. CME Impact on Expected Magnetospheres of Earth-Like Exoplanets in Close-In Habitable Zones". Astrobiology 7 (1): 167–184. Bibcode:2007AsBio...7..167K. doi:10.1089/ast.2006.0127. PMID 17407406. 
  31. ^ Alpert, Mark. "Red Star Rising: Scientific American". Sciam.com. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  32. ^ Zuluaga, J. I., Cuartas P. A., Hoyos, J. H. (2012): "Evolution of magnetic protection in potentially habitable terrestrial planets", ApJ (submitted), arXiv:1204.0275
  33. ^ Victor See, Moira Jardine, Aline A. Vidotto, Pascal Petit, Stephen C. Marsden, Sandra V. Jeffers, José Dias do Nascimento Jr (2014): "The effects of stellar winds on the magnetospheres and potential habitability of exoplanets", Astronomy & Astrophysics (submitted), arXiv:1409.1237v1.pdf
  34. ^ Cain, Fraser; Gay, Pamela (2007). "AstronomyCast episode 40: American Astronomical Society Meeting, May 2007". Universe Today. Retrieved 2007-06-17. 
  35. ^ "'The end of the world' has already begun, UW scientists say" (Press release). Science Daily. January 30, 2003. Retrieved 2011-07-05. 
  36. ^ "M Dwarfs: The Search for Life is On, Interview with Todd Henry". Astrobiology Magazine. August 29, 2005. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  37. ^ Steven S. Vogt, R. Paul Butler, E. J. Rivera, N. Haghighipour, Gregory W. Henry, and Michael H. Williamson. The Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey: A 3.1 M⊕ Planet in the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M3V Star Gliese 581. The Astrophysical Journal, 2010;
  38. ^ Adams, Fred C.; Laughlin, Gregory; Graves, Genevieve J. M. "Red Dwarfs and the End of the Main Sequence". Gravitational Collapse: From Massive Stars to Planets. Revista Mexicana de Astronomía y Astrofísica. pp. 46–49. Bibcode:2004RMxAC..22...46A. 
  39. ^ Stapledon, Olaf Star Maker 1937 Chapter 7 "More Worlds" Part 3 "Plant Men and Others"

External links[edit]