In physics, a lot of time is spent looking for something without knowing what you’re looking for. A shot in the dark, one might say. It is a paradoxical task that summarizes some of the most ambitious scientific endeavors. Things like the hunt for dark matter, antimatter, and the quest to complete the standard model of particle physics.
But this concept is guess and check especially present in our pursuit of alien life.
First, we have an essentially infinite universe at which to point our telescopes in an attempt to find extraterrestrials, and second, we are only familiar with life as we know it. Of course, aliens could be just like us. Or… they could be gooey monsters made of methane and intangible brains stuck in the fourth dimension.
However, on Friday, scientists made a discovery that they believe could “sharply narrow” the complex search for space creatures. In a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team explains how an Earth-like planet orbiting the most common type of star in the universe, an M dwarf, appears to have no atmosphere.
That is, perhaps we can conclude that most of the other Earth-like planets orbiting all these M dwarfs also lack atmospheres.
As such, they are unlikely to have life – at least life as we know it.
“The condition of this planet may be a bad sign for planets even further away from this type of star,” Michelle Hill, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “We will learn about this from the James Webb Space Telescope, which will observe such planets.”
However, Hill offers some optimism, saying that if a planet is far enough from an M dwarf, it could “potentially retain an atmosphere.”
Going back to “finding the unknown”, finding a team is critical to this kind of extraterrestrial research because the best way to accomplish such a task is through a process of elimination.
Any new data on where these creatures might live – or could no live is important to limit your search.
This earth is also the future of Mercury
The atmosphereless ball that scientists focused on is called GJ 1252b.
It is slightly larger than Earth, which is why it is considered “Earth-like”, but it is much closer to its star than our planet is to the Sun, meaning that it unbelievable hot So hot, in fact, that according to infrared data from GJ 1252b, daytime temperatures reach 2,242 degrees Fahrenheit (1,228 degrees Celsius). This is enough for gold, silver and copper to literally melt on its surface.
This excessive heat, combined with the presumed low surface pressure, led researchers to believe that GJ 1252b simply has no atmosphere.
“A planet could have 700 times more carbon than Earth and still have no atmosphere. It would have accumulated at first, but then narrowed and disappeared,” Stephen Kane, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside and co-author of the study, said in a statement. Also, it appears that the alien world orbits its star twice every Earth day.
“The pressure from the star’s radiation is enormous, enough to blow up the planet’s atmosphere,” Hill said.
In our own solar system, the research team compares the current state of GJ 1252b with the eventual fate of Mercury.
Mercury is much closer to the Sun than Earth, meaning it is very hot, like GJ 1252b, and has a very thin atmosphere. Because of the intense heat of the planet, these rare atoms of the atmosphere quickly fly out into space. Similarly, the Earth also loses some of its atmosphere over time, but events such as volcanic eruptions restore the lost shield of our home. It also helps that our planet is a bit further from the sun and therefore cooler.
In terms of how far these M-dwarf conclusions can go (assuming the worst that the planets around such stars are indeed devoid of atmospheres), there are 5,000 stars in the vicinity of Earth alone – most of them M-dwarfs. This would eliminate many options for finding extraterrestrial life, but we also have to consider that there are about 1,000 sun-like stars in our solar neighborhood as well.
Iit’s just our shared corner of the universe – a single molecule in the cosmic ocean.
So, yes, we still don’t know where the aliens are, and we have a long way to go to locate them. But at least now we know where they probably aren’t.