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Solar flare. Credit: NASA

Stars’ temper tantrums might not make it impossible for aliens to survive after all

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Dec 27, 2020, 1:45 PM EST

Could you possibly imagine living, surviving, and even thriving, on a planet that is constantly getting beat up by its star?

Any such life might sound like a breed of mutant aliens that metabolize radiation. Stellar flares, which zap magnetic energy into space, are often thought to drastically lower habitability. However, new research by Northwestern University scientists suggests that not extraterrestrial organisms still have a greater chance at survival on planets that orbit these temperamental stars. These planets could be an ideal place for things to spawn. Stellar flares may not only make atmospheres chemically friendlier to life (as we know it), but possibly easier to seek out.

“Recurring flares drive the atmospheres of planets around K and M dwarfs into chemical equilibria that substantially deviate from their pre-flare regimes,” said Daniel Horton, who led a study recently published in Nature Astronomy.

Humans are an example of life that survives despite these flares. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections do mess with our electricity, as well as our satellite and radio communications, but we still have enough ozone to keep them from turning us into the frozen desert otherwise known as Mars. This is why rocky planets that are exposed to constant flares have previously been passed over as potential hotbeds for life—they were thought to be radiation-bombed into cosmic wastelands. What Horton’s team found is that life might not just survive despite, but because of the flares.

Planets that are going to have any chance of spawning life need to be just close enough to their stars to keep water liquid, but not close enough to suffer from infernal temperatures like Mercury. The stars the researchers studied were M and K dwarf stars. These are the most common stars in the universe, with the most frequent occurrence of flares. There isn’t much habitable real estate around them. Planets that are tidally locked (gravitationally stuck with only one side facing the star as they orbit) are also doomed in terms of habitability, because all that stellar discharge makes it unlikely for them to have a magnetic field that shields them from killer radiation.

Stellar flare simulations based on data from NASA’s TESS showed that flares can increase the amount of planetary gases possibly indicative of life. This is how these phenomena inadvertently make it easier to detect potential life-forms. While gases like nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide and nitric acid aren’t definite proof that something is crawling out there, they might be signs that there is.

So the truth is out there, and it might be in places that nobody would have expected.