An Earth-like atmosphere may not survive Proxima b's orbit

An Earth-like atmosphere may not survive Proxima b's orbit
This artist's impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the solar system. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Proxima b, an Earth-size planet right outside our solar system in the habitable zone of its star, may not be able to keep a grip on its atmosphere, leaving the surface exposed to harmful stellar radiation and reducing its potential for habitability.

At only four light-years away, Proxima b is our closest known extra-solar neighbor. However, due to the fact that it hasn't been seen crossing in front of its host star, the exoplanet eludes the usual method for learning about its . Instead, scientists must rely on models to understand whether the exoplanet is habitable.

One such computer model considered what would happen if Earth orbited Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor and Proxima b's host star, at the same orbit as Proxima b. The NASA study, published on July 24, 2017, in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests Earth's atmosphere wouldn't survive in close proximity to the violent red dwarf.

"We decided to take the only habitable planet we know of so far—Earth—and put it where Proxima b is," said Katherine Garcia-Sage, a space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study. The research was supported by NASA's NExSS coalition—leading the search for life on planets beyond our solar system—and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Just because Proxima b's orbit is in the habitable zone, which is the distance from its host star where water could pool on a planet's surface, doesn't mean it's habitable. It doesn't take into account, for example, whether water actually exists on the planet, or whether an atmosphere could survive at that orbit. Atmospheres are also essential for life as we know it: Having the right atmosphere allows for climate regulation, the maintenance of a water-friendly surface pressure, shielding from hazardous space weather, and the housing of life's chemical building blocks.

Garcia-Sage and her colleagues' computer model used Earth's atmosphere, magnetic field and gravity as proxies for Proxima b's. They also calculated how much radiation Proxima Centauri produces on average, based on observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

With these data, their model simulates how the host star's intense radiation and frequent flaring affect the exoplanet's atmosphere.

"The question is, how much of the atmosphere is lost, and how quickly does that process occur?" said Ofer Cohen, a space scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of the study. "If we estimate that time, we can calculate how long it takes the atmosphere to completely escape—and compare that to the planet's lifetime."

An active red dwarf star like Proxima Centauri strips away atmosphere when high-energy extreme ultraviolet radiation ionizes atmospheric gases, knocking off electrons and producing a swath of electrically charged particles. In this process, the newly formed electrons gain enough energy that they can readily escape the planet's gravity and race out of the atmosphere.

Opposite charges attract, so as more negatively charged electrons leave the atmosphere, they create a powerful charge separation that pulls positively charged ions along with them, out into space.

An Earth-like atmosphere may not survive Proxima b's orbit
At its orbit, the exoplanet Proxima b likely couldn't sustain an Earth-like atmosphere. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

In Proxima Centauri's , Proxima b encounters bouts of hundreds of times greater than Earth does from the sun. That radiation generates enough energy to strip away not just the lightest molecules—hydrogen—but also, over time, heavier elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.

The model shows Proxima Centauri's powerful radiation drains the Earth-like atmosphere as much as 10,000 times faster than what happens at Earth.

"This was a simple calculation based on average activity from the ," Garcia-Sage said. "It doesn't consider variations like extreme heating in the star's atmosphere or violent stellar disturbances to the exoplanet's magnetic field—things we'd expect provide even more ionizing radiation and atmospheric escape."

To understand how the process can vary, the scientists looked at two other factors that exacerbate atmospheric loss. First, they considered the temperature of the neutral atmosphere, called the thermosphere. They found as the thermosphere heats with more stellar radiation, atmospheric escape increases.

The scientists also considered the size of the region over which atmospheric escape happens, called the polar cap. Planets are most sensitive to magnetic effects at their magnetic poles. When magnetic field lines at the poles are closed, the polar cap is limited and charged particles remain trapped near the planet. On the other hand, greater escape occurs when are open, providing a one-way route to space.

"This study looks at an under-appreciated aspect of habitability, which is atmospheric loss in the context of stellar physics," said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard space scientist not involved in the study. "Planets have lots of different interacting systems, and it's important to make sure we include these interactions in our models."

The scientists show that with the highest thermosphere temperatures and a completely open magnetic field, Proxima b could lose an amount equal to the entirety of Earth's atmosphere in 100 million years—that's just a fraction of Proxima b's 4 billion years thus far. When the scientists assumed the lowest temperatures and a closed , that much mass escapes over 2 billion years.

"Things can get interesting if an exoplanet holds on to its atmosphere, but Proxima b's atmospheric loss rates here are so high that habitability is implausible," said Jeremy Drake, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-author of the study. "This questions the habitability of planets around such red dwarfs in general."

Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri or the TRAPPIST-1 star are often the target of exoplanet hunts, because they are the coolest, smallest and most common stars in the galaxy. Because they are cooler and dimmer, planets have to maintain tight orbits for liquid water to be present.

But unless the atmospheric loss is counteracted by some other process—such as a massive amount of volcanic activity or comet bombardment—this close proximity, scientists are finding more often, is not promising for an atmosphere's survival or sustainability.

Explore further

The space weather forecast for Proxima Centauri B

More information: K. Garcia-Sage et al. On the Magnetic Protection of the Atmosphere of Proxima Centauri b, The Astrophysical Journal (2017). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/aa7eca
Citation: An Earth-like atmosphere may not survive Proxima b's orbit (2017, July 31) retrieved 20 June 2019 from
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Aug 01, 2017
I'm guessing that in most if not all binary, trinary systems that stable planetary orbits is extremely unlikely.

Aug 01, 2017
Considering that we think life sprung up here only 600 million years ago, an atmosphere that lasts for a billion or two years should not be sneezed at, and there is a very good possiblity that it's atmosphere will be replentished to a degree, as ours has. Do remember, we lost a large deal of our atmosphere due to Luna, and that keeps us from being in a Venus heat trap situation. Mars apparently had plenty of water, and there is actually ample evidence that there was life in the distant past (see 'Mars Fossil Destroyed by JPL' a fossilized crinoid that they ground away with their disc sander but is still evidenced in the pics and raw data), if not still being there now. so that within the 5 Billion years our Sun has been about has had at least 2 worlds capable of supporting life, and who knows, with Europa, Enceladus, Titan and Ganymede there may well be more life out there than we could ever expect.

Aug 02, 2017
Considering that we think life sprung up here only 600 million years ago,

Scientists have found signs of microbial life in rocks 3.48 billion years old


Aug 02, 2017
You are quite right Shootist, I should have said that it appears that life here formed within the first 600 million years after Planetary formation. Had there not been as many extinction events, an intelligent life form capable of tech may have formed a long time ago, is still possible, there is a lot about various Reptilian, Saurians and Lizard type critters, along with Sea Life, which had a head start, but hampered by lack of fire, and then whatever mammal/marsupial forms or such, that may develop multiple lines towards sapiency.

But just generating that 'first' life is a big milestone, once that one is passed then the limits start dropping away.

Aug 04, 2017
The Cenos ET aliens appear to be a space mobile sentient species from Proxima b. They appear to be amphibians.


But one was photographed by the Police in Taiwan.

Meet the (alleged) aliens of Proxima b

They provided the mass of the Jovian planets relative to our Sun 4300 years ago.

So now we have contradictory conclusions.

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