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The search for ET has an X factor: the evolution of stars

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It was Stephen King The search for stars that could host planets with warm, temperate climates and hospitable to life — you know, like Earth — when he spotted a tiny red dwarf called AU Microscopii that is “only” 32 light-years from its home.

“The star is a complete kid, when it comes to planetary systems. That means we have an opportunity here to observe a planet in the very early stages of a planet’s evolution,” he says. So Kane, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues used the star as a laboratory and a model for others like him, dictating his future life. This helped them figure out when planets orbiting them might fall within the star’s “habitable zone” – a distance that is neither too hot nor too cold to support life. They found that the star will glow brightly at first, then cool down and burn less intensely, so that the range of life-friendly spots approaches the star by about 30 to 40 percent during the star’s first 200 million years. They published their work this month in Astronomical Journal.

This is important to Kane and other scientists, who hope one day to see a world friendly to life beyond Earth, with green ecosystems teeming with alien life forms, because it suggests that a planet in a habitable place may not remain habitable forever. For the “Goldilocks” best case scenario, everything should be perfectly fine, including the temperature that would allow the planet to have liquid water at the surface – a prerequisite for life as we know it. (Life is like us don’t do You know it’s another story.) Other factors are also important, like a breathable atmosphere, a stable climate, and adequate protection from harsh UV rays. Mars, for example, is in the habitable zone of our sun, but it lost its water and most of its atmosphere eons ago. Venus is at the inner edge of the region, but thanks to its veil of carbon dioxide, it gets very hot.

AU Microscopii gives scientists a glimpse into how this region has grown or contracted over the lifetime of the star. “These red dwarf stars have a very long and very misbehaving teenage phase. It could be hundreds of millions of years before a star like this finally settles down as an adult,” says Sarah Seeger, an MIT astrophysicist and former deputy director of science for NASA’s mission to discover the planet called TESS. .

Kane and his team showed that because their red dwarf and other stars like it can act like teenagers for a while, the currently inhospitable world may become more habitable down the road. But the opposite may also happen: “A planet that is in the habitable zone now may not exist once the star changes,” he says.

If the host star cools slightly, the planet may become too cold for any alien to make a living on it; Lakes and rivers will gradually freeze. On the other hand, older stars usually eventually warm up, so aliens who have been in a place suitable for life can eventually see the water necessary for life boil, as anything on their planet’s surface is baked to death.


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