How NASA’s mission to ‘the Sun’ can reveal clues about alien worlds

An artist has a picture of a so-called “hot Jupiter-like planet in orbit around a star of approximately the same size as our sun.


NASA’s new mission to the sun can give you great clues about alien worlds, too.

Every day we are dependent on the sun for heat and light, but we need the atmosphere of the Earth to protect us against our star of the harsh conditions and because our sun is just another star, the same could be true of life on other worlds, the planetary scientists told

That means that studying the sun up close can teach us something about the planets in distant solar systems. And a NASA mission can quickly begin to do that: This fall, the Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August, will begin by exploring how our star works. Exoplanet scientists watch the mission to see what data can offer about the exotic worlds. [Launch Photos! NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Blasts From the Sun]

“We can learn so much from our sun and, in particular, for the other sun-like stars,” Evgenya Shkolnik, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Arizona State University, told In particular, she wants a better sense of the high-energy particles and photons, or particles of light, the stars produce. “It is crucial to understand that all of these things for exo-planet hosts, for sure,” she said.

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We know about the dangers of these particles and photons from our own experiences here on Earth, where the planet’s atmosphere buffers us from the worst of the side effects of living in the vicinity of the sun: Only with extreme suns do we absorb enough uv radiation to damage the DNA in our cells have enough potential to kill us with cancer, and only in the most extreme solar eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, do her highly charged particles will overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field, and thus interfere with our technology.

If an exoplanet is less happy in his natural protection, or in the star of temperament, that high-energy particles and photons would be the deciding factors in an exoplanet’s habitability, said Ravi Kopparapu, a planetary scientist at NASA. Even when a planet creates an atmosphere, as it is bombarded by too many stellar particles, that barrage can destroy the atmosphere. “They can get rid of the atmosphere and make the planet uninhabitable,” said Kopparapu

But both types of high-energy outflow are incredibly difficult to study at a distance, hence the attraction of free-riding on the Parker Solar Probe.

The spacecraft’s path through the sun broiling outer atmosphere will allow it to within 4 million miles (6 million kilometers) of what we consider the surface of the sun — at about the same distance of the many exo-planets are from their stars, Shkolnik said. In fact, in her lectures on these planets, they edited the footage of the solar eclipse and the planet images to bring the incredible environment around these planets.

“I show the corona and put fake exoplanets there because it is amazing to think that these planets are actually streaming through their suns’ coronae,” Shkolnik said. Many of these planets are in what scientists have called “hot Jupiters” and are uninhabitably gaseous itself — but that would not be the end of the story.

“There is a question of whether or not moons around these hot Jupiters could be habitable,” Shkolnik said. (Scientists have not yet discovered any such moons yet, but they are still honing their ability to spot the planets, which are much larger.) “That’s not a crazy idea, because we think that the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would be places to look for life in our solar system,” Shkolnik said.

So Shkolnik is in the holes for the dates of the Earth, solar probe will beam home beginning later this year, in the hopes of using it to isolate the information about quality of life in the neighborhood at least the other sun-like stars. “I will not know how hard or easy that the analysis will be until I see the data,” she said. [7 earth-like Planets of TRAPPIST-1 in Photos]

And high-energy radiation such as uv-light not only the potential to destroy poorly shielded life; it may be a trick scientists into thinking somewhere is more vibrant than it really is. That is because the sun’s ultraviolet radiation can break down water and create oxygen, one of the most important molecules scientists look for as a potential signature of life. Extrapolating the data of the Parker Solar Probe is able to stop scientists from fooling with this fake biosignatures, Kopparapu said.

Perhaps the most valuable some insight into the spaceship can give us of how the sun’s dynamics are shaped by its magnetic field, that seems to guide much of what happens in and around a star.

“In one way or another, it is all related to the sun’s magnetic field,” Shkolnik said. “Even if we don’t have the details, we know that much.”

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