Much as astrobiologists would like to see the birth of a new planet, the ones we observe seem to be dying, not being born.
“Newly found planet may turn into dust,” reads a headline on NASA’s Astrobiology Net. This does not bode well for any inhabitants the astrobiologists would like to meet. Echoing a press release from MIT, the article described how a planet around a star 1,500 light-years away appears to have a comet-like tail, evidence of a cloud of dust following the planet as it disintegrates. The press release includes a 40-second animation of how the “doomed world” is shedding its material, and ends with this statement:
“This might be another way in which planets are eventually doomed,” says Fabrycky, who was not involved in the research. “A lot of research has come to the conclusion that planets are not eternal objects, they can die extraordinary deaths, and this might be a case where the planet might evaporate entirely in the future.”
PhysOrg today described another place where planets are doomed. Too remote to be observed directly, this system’s dust disk appears to be tugged at by a black hole at the galactic center. No need to worry about the inhabitants there; there aren’t any. “Yet, even if planets do form, living near a supermassive black hole is still not a hospitable place for life,” the article said. “The extreme amounts of UV radiation emitted as the black hole devours gas and dust is likely to sterilize the region.”
As referenced in the May 14 entry, New Scientist warned that dust disks around stars can no longer be assumed as planet maternity wards. “Dust rings not ‘smoking gun’ for planets after all,” wrote Maggie McKee. (Sorry for the unfortunate mixed metaphors; the thought of a smoking gun in a maternity ward may be disturbing – unless nothing was being born there in the first place.) The dust surrounding a star can form sharply-defined rings without congealing into a paradise for aliens.
Astrobiologists and planet hunters have a new worry announced in Nature today:1 “Startling superflares.” Bradley Schaefer, referencing a study done by the Kepler Spacecraft team published in the same issue of Nature,2 said, “Stars that are just like our Sun have flares more than a million times more energetic than the biggest flare ever seen on the Sun.” A couple of minutes of exposure to one of these flares would doom the Earth, but some of these flares from other sun-like stars can last for half a day or several days. The astronomers found no correlation of superflares with hot Jupiters or with rotation rates, leaving them clueless about the causes of the flares.
Statistically, superflares are not common on sun-like stars. Nevertheless, our sun is special, as Schaefer explained:
The possibility that the Sun has superflares is not realized. Historical and geophysical records show that the Sun has not had any superflares in the past two millennia, and no superflares with more than roughly 1036 erg for perhaps a billion years. Maehara et al. show that only 0.2% of Sun-like stars have superflares, so it is unlikely that the Sun has such events. With their average rate of occurrence (once every 100 days for 1035–erg flares) and their observed size distribution (with a power-law index of roughly −2.0), the expected frequency of 1032–erg flares on all superflare stars should be very high. In stark contrast to this, the Sun has one 1032–erg event roughly every 450 years and so is completely different from superflare stars.
While recognizing the deadly force of a superflare, Schaefer exercised a vivid imagination by thinking of ways they might be good for evolution:
Superflares have implications far beyond being just a challenge for stellar physics. If a superflare’s energy is linked to the orbital energy of a hot Jupiter, then three events a year on the star would make its planetary companion spiral in towards it on a timescale of a billion years. The huge energy output of superflares could make any planets around the star uninhabitable for far-future human colonization, and astrobiologists will have to consider the effect of the superflares on possible alien life. Superflares might provide the high-energy radiation required to create organic molecules, so perhaps superflare systems are a good place to look for alien life that has evolved to avoid the effects of the huge flares.
1. Bradley Schaefer, “Startling superflares,” Nature 485 (24 May 2012), pp. 456–457, doi:10.1038/nature11194.
2. Maehera et al., “Superflares on solar-type stars,” Nature 485 (24 May 2012), doi:10.1038/nature11063.
Preach it, Bradley; Darwin comes to the rescue to create aliens that evolve the ability to avoid being fried to a crisp. Why not test your idea by looking for imaginary friends on Venus or the Sun?
The findings do not support the bottom-up view that everything emerges from nothing. Instead, they are consistent with the top-down view of the universe: the universe, stars and planets were created perfect and are degenerating under entropy. Planets and stars are not being formed now; they are disrupting and getting fried. Were it not for providential design of our star and planet, it could happen to us, too.
The findings are also consistent with the Privileged Planet hypothesis of Jay Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez, that our planet was designed for life and for scientific discovery. The only place in the universe we know about where sentient beings can observe distant stars and see that they have superflares is Earth. Those same beings can notice that our sun is remarkably stable and life-sustaining.
Intelligent design, of course, is not at all surprising to Biblical creationists who read the words of Isaiah, revealing God’s purpose in making the Earth:
For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else. (Isaiah 45:18)
With great privilege comes great responsibility, as the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, continued in the next verses (referring back to Genesis 1 as His revelation):
Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the Lord? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely, shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength: even to him shall men come; and all that are incensed against him shall be ashamed. (Isaiah 45:21–24)