Space weather can predict if extraterrestrial life could survive

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If Earthlings really aren’t alone, then where are all the extraterrestrial life? Maybe you should check the space weather forecast.

That doesn’t mean that hypothetical aliens (especially pizza-loving ones) only emerge with clear skies and a burst of stars. However, they might not exist at all on a plasma bombarded planet or moon. Now, a new space weather model could help scientists discover which exoplanets, most of which are too distant from us to measure their atmospheric chemistry, are most likely to be habitable. How their stars should behave can have an impact on the atmosphere that can affect potential habitability.

What is known as the PATH (Particle Acceleration and Transport in the Heliosphere) model has been upgraded to the iPATH (Enhanced PATH) model to give an idea of ​​how particles move and accelerate from stellar explosions to atmospheres of neighboring planets. NASA Goddard researcher Vladimir Airapetian, who came up with the original concept for iPATH, co-authored a study recently published in Science Advances.

“iPATH is a tool that calculates the formation of energetic protons in the shock waves produced by coronal mass ejections. Their strength depends on how fast the shocks spread,” he told SYFY WIRE.

Some positive things come out of super flares and coronal mass ejections that otherwise look terrifying. The spewed particles are ionized, meaning they have electrons added or removed, by molecules in the atmosphere. This brings an onslaught of electrons strong enough to break the bonds of molecular nitrogen to atomic nitrogen, and the bonds of carbon dioxide to carbon and oxygen, those of water molecules to hydroxyl (hydrogen-oxygen groups) and into atomic hydrogen.

These floating molecules easily react with others. Among other things, they create nitric oxide (NO). Although it’s the same scary greenhouse gas that can wipe out ozone, NO molecules can also create a type of nitrous oxide (N2O) which traps heat in the atmosphere and keeps a planet or moon warm more efficiently than even carbon dioxide. On an exoplanet where it would otherwise be cold, this trapped heat could mean the survival of potential life forms. The reactive molecules can also join with the CH molecules of methane and combine into prebiotic substances.

“These molecules can form hydrogen cyanide, HCN, the precursor molecule for amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and nucleic acids, and formaldehyde,” Airapetian said. “Formaldehyde may be toxic to us now, but can form sugars, and sugars are the basis of life.”

The heat from super rockets can also be a catalyst in chemical reactions – it triggers them. Prebiotic molecules, such as organic compounds, then reacted with each other to become things like proteins and amino acids, and somehow formed life (although we don’t know exactly how). Whatever the right amount of heat for it, a distant star could heat a planet in its orbit. Maybe life will emerge in millions or billions of years. He might even be emerging from an alien primordial ooze right now.

By using physics to make sense of the types of energetic particles spewed out by superflares, the iPath model can predict which rocky exoplanets relatively close to their stars are possibly homes, or at least future breeding grounds, for life. This is where physics and space weather collide. By digitally simulating super flares, Airapetian and his research team were able to get an idea of ​​what happens to the energetic particles caught in these phenomena.

“With iPath, we use the statistical correlations obtained for solar flares and CME events to establish the relationship between the energies of superflares and CMEs, which are the two parts of the eruptive process on the Sun and active solar-like stars” , did he declare.

iPath can be applied as soon as a shock occurs. After the researchers understood the connection between superflare energies and CME, they used the ZEUS tool to calculate the shocks resulting from these phenomena. Although iPATH has not yet been used on specific planets, the best targets will be rocky bodies, similar to what early Earth looked like, near certain types of magnetically active dwarf stars. The Sun is magnetically active, if geomagnetic storms are any indication. Airapetian conducted another recent study which found that the light and heat from a distant star was similar to the sunlight that Earth was basking in at first.

Undiscovered life forms could really be anywhere or anything. There is an argument that extraterrestrials, even intelligent extraterrestrials, could be hiding under miles of ice in the aquatic depths of exo-worlds similar to Europa or Enceladus. Frozen planets or moons could pass through just about anything without disturbing anything living. These worlds could be hit by anything from coronal mass ejections to cosmic rays to molecular clouds, and anything living under all that ice (possibly near a hydrothermal vent) would be blissfully oblivious.

Looking to the future, the research team has two ultimate goals. They first want to detect signs of CMEs, super flares and other events involving stellar particles in exoplanet atmospheres, and see how the particles interact with those already present in an extraterrestrial atmosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other telescopes will be able to find these particles. The team also wants to look for the particular molecules that form the prebiotic substances, which may or may not indicate that life is reproducing – or has already spawned.

As the JWST squints into the distance and powerful telescopes come to pass, who knows what kind of predictions we might find out there.

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