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The space weather forecast might also predict aliens

Extraterrestrials are now in the forecast. 

By Elizabeth Rayne
Extraterrestrial wearing green dress standing in desert.

If Earthlings are really not alone, then where are all the extraterrestrial life-forms hanging out? Maybe you should check the space weather forecast.

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

What is known as the PATH (Particle Acceleration and Transport in the Heliosphere) model was upgraded into the iPATH (improved PATH) model to give an idea of how particles travel and accelerate from stellar outbursts to the atmospheres of nearby planets. Researcher Vladimir Airapetian of NASA Goddard, who came up with the initial concept for iPATH, coauthored a study recently published in Science Advances.

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

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

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

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

Heat from superflares can also be a catalyst in chemical reactions — it sets them off. Prebiotic molecules, such as organic compounds, later reacted with each other to become things like proteins and amino acids, and somehow formed life (though we don’t exactly know how). Whatever the right amount of heat for that is, a faraway star could be heating up a planet in its orbit. Maybe life will emerge in millions or billions of years. It might even be crawling out of an alien primordial ooze right now.

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

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

iPath can be applied as soon as shock happens. After the researchers figured out how superflare and CME energies are related, they used the ZEUS tool to calculate the shocks that came out of these phenomena. Though iPATH has not been used on specific planets yet, the best targets will be rocky bodies, similar to what early Earth was like, near certain types of magnetically active dwarf stars. The Sun is magnetically active, if geomagnetic storms are any indication. Airapetian led another recent study that found out light and heat coming from a distant star were similar to the sunlight early Earth basked in.

Undiscovered forms of life really could be anywhere or anything. There is an argument that aliens, even intelligent aliens, may be hiding beneath miles of ice in the watery depths of exo-worlds similar to Europa or Enceladus. Frozen planets or moons could pass through just about everything without perturbing anything that happens to be alive. These worlds could get hit with anything, from coronal mass ejections to cosmic rays to molecular clouds, and anything living beneath all that ice (possibly near a hydrothermal vent) would be blissfully unaware.

Looking to the future, the research team has two ultimate goals. They first want to detect signs of CMEs, superflares, and other events involving stellar particles in the atmospheres of exoplanets, and see how the particles interact with those already in an alien atmosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other telescopes will be able to find those particles. The team also wants to seek out the particular molecules that form prebiotic substances, which may or may not indicate that life is spawning — or has already spawned.

As the JWST squints into the distance, and powerful upcoming telescopes become realized, who knows what kind of forecast we might find out there.