Astronomers Closer to Discovering Habitable Planets

A team of scientists in the Netherlands have boldly gone where no other scientists have gone before with the discovery of a brand new method for detecting planets outside our solar system, in what could be the next step towards finding another Earth.

Published in Nature Astronomy and Astrophysical Journal Letters (ApJL) the team used a Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope to observe radio waves that carry the distinct signatures of aurorae, caused by the interaction between a star’s magnetic field and a planet in orbit around it.

A long-predicted interaction between stars and planets, the discovery of the aurorae is the first time scientists have been able to detect and decipher these signals, paving the way for new exo-planet discovery methods.

Co-author on the recent Nature Astronomy paper, Joe Callingham, said the method was adapted from decades of radio observations of Jupiter.

“We now know that nearly every red dwarf hosts terrestrial planets, so there must be other stars showing similar emission… We want to know how this impacts our search for another Earth around another star.”

In addition to assisting in the search for another Earth, the aurorae will open up a new way of understanding the habitat of exoplanets.

“If we find that most red dwarf planets are blasted by intense stellar winds, this is bad news for their habitability,” says Benjamin Pope, NASA Sagan Fellow at New York University and lead author of the ApJL paper.

The long term aim of the discovery is now to determine “what impact the star’s magnetic activity has on an exoplanet’s habitability, and radio emissions are a big piece of that puzzle.”

“Our work has shown that this is viable with the new generation of radio telescopes and put us on an exciting path.”

For fans of the intergalactic expanse, these scientists will now begin their mission: “to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”