The most Earth-like planet could have been made uninhabitable by vast quantities of radiation, new research led by the University of Warwick has found.
The atmosphere of the planet, Kepler-438b, is thought to have been stripped away as a result of radiation emitted from a superflaring Red Dwarf star, Kepler-438.
Regularly occurring every few hundred days, the superflares are approximately ten times more powerful than those ever recorded on the Sun and equivalent to the same energy as 100 billion megatons of TNT.
While superflares themselves are unlikely to have a significant impact on Kepler-438b’s atmosphere, a dangerous phenomenon associated with powerful flares, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), has the potential to strip away any atmosphere and render it uninhabitable.
The planet Kepler-438b, to date the exoplanet with the highest recorded Earth Similarity Index, is both similar in size and temperature to the Earth but is in closer proximity to the Red Dwarf than the Earth is to the Sun.
Lead researcher, Dr David Armstrong of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group, explains:
“Unlike the Earth’s relatively quiet sun, Kepler-438 emits strong flares every few hundred days, each one stronger than the most powerful recorded flare on the Sun. It is likely that these flares are associated with coronal mass ejections, which could have serious damaging effects on the habitability of the planet.
“If the planet, Kepler-438b, has a magnetic field like the Earth, it may be shielded from some of the effects. However, if it does not, or the flares are strong enough, it could have lost its atmosphere, be irradiated by extra dangerous radiation and be a much harsher place for life to exist”.
Discussing the impact of the superflares and radiation on the atmosphere of Kepler-438b, Chloe Pugh, of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics, says:
“The presence of an atmosphere is essential for the development of life. While flares themselves are unlikely to have a significant impact on an atmosphere as a whole, there is another more dangerous phenomenon associated with powerful flares, known as a coronal mass ejection.
“Coronal mass ejections are where a huge amount of plasma is hurled outwards from the Sun, and there is no reason why they should not occur on other active stars as well. The likelihood of a coronal mass ejection occurring increases with the occurrence of powerful flares, and large coronal mass ejections have the potential to strip away any atmosphere that a close-in planet like Kepler-438b might have, rendering it uninhabitable. With little atmosphere, the planet would also be subject to harsh UV and X-ray radiation from the superflares, along with charged particle radiation, all of which are damaging to life”.
The research, The Host Stars of Kepler’s Habitable Exoplanets: Superflares, Rotation and Activity, is published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
I would send this along to my atheist friends, but they will just wag their fingers at me and tell me that Star Trek and Star Wars have disproved all that experimental science “superstition”.
It’s Friday night, so it might be a good time for everyone to get up to speed with the habitability argument. And look, you can do that for free by watching the 90-minute documentary entitled “The Privileged Planet”. It’s free and it’s awesome!
The Earth’s Atmospheric Conditions Are Favorable to Life:
The surface gravity of Earth is critical to its ability to retain an atmosphere friendly to life. If Earth’s gravity were stronger, our atmosphere would contain too much methane and ammonia. If our planet’s gravity were weaker, Earth wouldn’t be able to retain enough water. As it is, Earth’s atmosphere has a finely calibrated ratio of oxygen to nitrogen—just enough carbon dioxide and adequate water vapor levels to promote advanced life, allow photosynthesis (without an excessive greenhouse effect), and to allow for sufficient rainfall.
Ok, that’s very good.
Now here is one from me… well, it’s from Science Daily, but I found it. Actually, ECM found it. But he told me.
They suggest that the size and location of an asteroid belt, shaped by the evolution of the Sun’s protoplanetary disk and by the gravitational influence of a nearby giant Jupiter-like planet, may determine whether complex life will evolve on an Earth-like planet.
This might sound surprising because asteroids are considered a nuisance due to their potential to impact Earth and trigger mass extinctions. But an emerging view proposes that asteroid collisions with planets may provide a boost to the birth and evolution of complex life.
Asteroids may have delivered water and organic compounds to the early Earth. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, occasional asteroid impacts might accelerate the rate of biological evolution by disrupting a planet’s environment to the point where species must try new adaptation strategies.
The astronomers based their conclusion on an analysis of theoretical models and archival observations of extrasolar Jupiter-sized planets and debris disks around young stars. “Our study shows that only a tiny fraction of planetary systems observed to date seem to have giant planets in the right location to produce an asteroid belt of the appropriate size, offering the potential for life on a nearby rocky planet,” said Martin, the study’s lead author. “Our study suggests that our solar system may be rather special.”
So, that’s 5 ways that the Earth and our solar system are fine-tuned to be habitable for complex, embodied minds. Somebody is looking out for you, so be thankful and recognize.
Actually, I was thinking about this today (Wednesday). At lunch, I was thinking about this girl I know who is very disrespectful of me, of what I’ve achieved, and she won’t take my advice in the areas where I am experienced – education, career, saving, investing. I was fretting about it as I was about to start eating my lunch and suddenly it struck me that I don’t give God enough credit for the many blessings I get from him. I don’t mean things that “go my way”, I mean big things like habitability, and so on. So I said a longer grace than normal today at lunch. I wonder if he sent me that rebellious girl so that I would know how he feels when I don’t recognize and respect him, and just complain about the things he doesn’t do for me.
Anyway, I hope this habitability post will give you something to be thankful for. Our God is an awesome God.
When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the following four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism.
Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:
the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)
And I point to specific examples of recent discoveries that confirm those four arguments. Here are just a few of them:
Nature 302, 505 – 506 (07 April 1983); doi:10.1038/302505a0
The impossibility of a bouncing universe
ALAN H. GUTH* & MARC SHER†
*Center for Theoretical Physics, Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA
†Department of Physics, University of California, Irvine, California 92717, USA
Petrosian1 has recently discussed the possibility that the restoration of symmetry at grand unification in a closed contracting Robertson–Walker universe could slow down and halt the contraction, causing the universe to bounce. He then went on to discuss the possibility that our universe has undergone a series of such bounces. We disagree with this analysis. One of us (M.S.) has already shown2 that if a contracting universe is dominated by radiation, then a bounce is impossible. We will show here two further results: (1) entropy considerations imply that the quantity S (defined in ref. 1 and below), which must decrease by ~1075 to allow the present Universe to bounce, can in fact decrease by no more than a factor of ~2; (2) if the true vacuum state has zero energy density, then a universe which is contracting in its low temperature phase can never complete a phase transition soon enough to cause a bounce.
The universe is not only expanding, but that expansion appears to be speeding up. And as if that discovery alone weren’t strange enough, it implies that most of the energy in the cosmos is contained in empty space — a concept that Albert Einstein considered but discarded as his “biggest blunder.” The new findings have been recognized as 1998’s top scientific breakthrough by Science magazine.
[…]The flood of findings about the universe’s expansion rate is the result of about 10 years of study, said Saul Perlmutter, team leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Perlmutter and others found such a yardstick in a particular kind of exploding star known as a Type 1A supernova. Over the course of several years, the astronomers developed a model to predict how bright such a supernova would appear at any given distance. Astronomers recorded dozens of Type 1A supernovae and anxiously matched them up with redshifts to find out how much the universe’s expansion was slowing down.
To their surprise, the redshift readings indicated that the expansion rate for distant supernovae was lower than the expansion rate for closer supernovae, Perlmutter said. On the largest scale imaginable, the universe’s galaxies appear to be flying away from each other faster and faster as time goes on.
“What we have found is that there is a ‘dark force’ that permeates the universe and that has overcome the force of gravity,” said Nicholas Suntzeff of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, who is the co-founder of another group called the High-z Supernova Search Team. “This result is so strange and unexpected that it perhaps is only believable because two independent international groups have found the same effect in their data.”
There has only been one creation of the universe, and the universe will never reverse its expansion, so that it could oscillate eternally. That view is popular, perhaps in part because many people watched videos of Carl Sagan speculating about it in public school classrooms, but all it was was idle naturalistic speculation, (Sagan was a naturalist, and held out hope that science would vindicate naturalism), and has been contradicted by good experimental science. You should be familiar with the 3 evidences for the Big Bang (redshift, light element abundances (helium/hydrogen) and the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are others, (radioactive element abundances, second law of thermodynamics, stellar lifecycle), but those are the big three. Point out how the experimental evidence for the Big Bang has piled up, making the problem even worse for the eternal-universe naturalists.
2) The multiverse has not been tested experimentally, it’s pure speculation.
Multiverse thinking or the belief in the existence of parallel universes is more philosophy or science fiction than science. ”Cosmology must seem odd to scientists in other fields”.
George Ellis, a well-known mathematician and cosmologist, who for instance has written a book with Stephen Hawking, is sceptical of the idea that our universe is just another universe among many others.
A few weeks ago, Ellis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, reviewed Brian Greene’s book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (Knopf/Allen Lane, 2011) in the journal Nature. He is not at all convinced that the multiverse hypothesis is credible: ”Greene is not presenting aspects of a known reality; he is telling of unproven theoretical possibilities.”
According to professor Ellis, there is no evidence of multiverses, they cannot be tested and they are not science.
Ellis is not the only multiverse sceptic in this universe. A few months ago, science writer John Horgan wrote a column in Scientific American, expressing his doubt in multiverses.
When you get into a debate, you must never ever let the other side get away with asserting something they have no evidence for. Call them on it – point out that they have no evidence, and then hammer them with evidence for your point. Pile up cases of fine-tuning on top of each other and continuously point out that they have no experimental evidence for their speculations. Point out that more evidence we get, the more cases of fine-tuning we find, and the tougher the problem gets for naturalists. There is no evidence for a multiverse, but there is evidence for fine-tuning. TONS OF IT.
3) Naturalistic theories for the origin of life have two problems: can’t make the amino acids in an oxydized atmosphere and can’t make protein and DNA sequences by chance in the time available.
Estimating the prevalence of protein sequences adopting functional enzyme folds.
The Babraham Institute, Structural Biology Unit, Babraham Research Campus, Cambridge CB2 4AT, UK. email@example.com
Proteins employ a wide variety of folds to perform their biological functions. How are these folds first acquired? An important step toward answering this is to obtain an estimate of the overall prevalence of sequences adopting functional folds.
[…]Starting with a weakly functional sequence carrying this signature, clusters of ten side-chains within the fold are replaced randomly, within the boundaries of the signature, and tested for function. The prevalence of low-level function in four such experiments indicates that roughly one in 10(64) signature-consistent sequences forms a working domain. Combined with the estimated prevalence of plausible hydropathic patterns (for any fold) and of relevant folds for particular functions, this implies the overall prevalence of sequences performing a specific function by any domain-sized fold may be as low as 1 in 10(77), adding to the body of evidence that functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences.
So atheists are in double jeopardy here. They don’t have a way to build the Scrabble letters needed for life, and they don’t have a way to form the Scrabble letters into meaningful words and sentences. Point out that the more research we do, the tougher the problem gets to solve for naturalists, and the more it looks like an effect of intelligence. Write out the calculations for them.
4) The best candidate to explain the sudden origin of the Cambrian era fossils was the Ediacaran fauna, but those are now recognized as not being precursors to the Cambrian fossils.
Evidence of the single-celled ancestors of animals, dating from the interval in Earth’s history just before multicellular animals appeared, has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from South China by researchers from the University of Bristol, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Paul Scherrer Institut and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
[…]This X-ray microscopy revealed that the fossils had features that multicellular embryos do not, and this led the researchers to the conclusion that the fossils were neither animals nor embryos but rather the reproductive spore bodies of single-celled ancestors of animals.
Professor Philip Donoghue said: “We were very surprised by our results — we’ve been convinced for so long that these fossils represented the embryos of the earliest animals — much of what has been written about the fossils for the last ten years is flat wrong. Our colleagues are not going to like the result.”
Professor Stefan Bengtson said: “These fossils force us to rethink our ideas of how animals learned to make large bodies out of cells.”
The trend is that there is no evolutionary explanation for the body plans that emerged in the Cambrian era. If you want to make the claim that “evolution did it”, then you have to produce the data today. Not speculations about the future. The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. But rational people know that we need to minimize our leaps of faith, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.
I do think it’s important for Christians to focus more on scientific apologetics and to focus their academic careers in scientific fields. So often I look at Christian blogs, and I see way too much G. K. Chesterton, Francis Chan and other untestable, ineffective jibber-jabber. We need to bring the hard science, and stop making excuses about not being able to understand it because it’s too hard. It’s not too hard. Everyone can understand Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator“. That’s more than enough for the average Christian on science apologetics. We all have to do our best to learn what works. You don’t want to be anti-science and pro-speculation like atheists are. I recommend reading Uncommon Descent and Evolution News every day for a start.
I found an interview with Peter Ward (atheist) and Donald Brownlee (agnostic) discussing astrobiology in Forbes magazine. They were asked about how important plate tectonics are for a planet to be able to support complex life.
Astrobiologists often cite the sheer numbers of stars and galaxies as evidence that complex life elsewhere must surely have evolved somewhere. But is probability enough?
Without a moon, we don’t have any idea of how commonly a planet could have the long-term stability needed for complex life. Until we “get” that, going to the sheer numbers argument is useless. Without that moon-forming collision, we wouldn’t have plate tectonics. Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.
What about the rarity of earth’s crustal dichotomy of oceans and continents?
If you can’t make granite, you’re not going to have continents. But granite formation is a consequence of our moon-forming collision. That scrambled the entire density of our crust. Mars doesn’t have granite; all it’s got is this volcanic basalt. To build granite you need a planetary subduction [or plate tectonic] process.
In triggering complex life, how important were plate tectonics’ role in the continual recycling of earth’s atmosphere?
It’s this recycling that allows for a very rich planetary atmosphere with an extended life. Photosynthesis gets you oxygen, but how do you get enough photosynthesis to get oxygen at 10 to 20 percent? You’ve got to have a shoreline next to a rich sea with rocks eroding into it in order to provide the nitrogen and phosphates for [plant] photosynthesis.
This article from Astrobiology explains more about the importance of plate tectonics.
Plate tectonics is the process of continents on the Earth drifting and colliding, rock grinding and scraping, mountain ranges being formed, and earthquakes tearing land apart. It makes our world dynamic and ever-changing. But should it factor into our search for life elsewhere in the universe?
Tilman Spohn believes so. As director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, and chairman of ESA’s scientific advisory committee, he studies worlds beyond our Earth. When looking into the relationship between habitability and plate tectonics, some fascinating possibilities emerged.
It is thought that the best places to search for life in the Universe are on planets situated in “habitable zones” around other stars. These are orbital paths where the temperature is suitable for liquid water; not so close to the star that it boils away, and not so far that it freezes. Spohn believes that this view may be outdated. He elaborates, “you could have habitats outside those, for instance in the oceans beneath ice covers on the Galilean satellites, like Europa. But not every icy satellite would be habitable. Take Ganymede, where the ocean is trapped between two layers of ice. You are missing a fresh supply of nutrition and energy.”
So planets and moons that lie beyond habitable zones could host life, so long as the habitat, such as an ocean, is not isolated. It needs access to the key ingredients of life, including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur. These elements support the basic chemistry of life as we know it, and the material, Spohn argues, must be regularly replenished. Nature’s method of achieving this on the Earth appears to be plate tectonics.
Spohn found that the further he delved into the issue, the more important plate tectonics seemed to be for life. For example, it is believed that life developed by moving from the ocean to the kind of strong and stable rock formations that are the result of tectonic action. Plate tectonics is also involved in the generation of a magnetic field by convection of Earth’s partially molten core. This magnetic field protects life on Earth by deflecting the solar wind. Not only would an unimpeded solar wind erode our planet’s atmosphere, but it also carries highly energetic particles that could damage DNA.
Another factor is the recycling of carbon, which is needed to stabilize the temperature here on Earth. Spohn explains, “plate tectonics is known to recycle carbon that is washed out of the atmosphere and digested by bacteria in the soil into the interior of the planet from where it can be outcast through volcanic activity. Now, if you have a planet without plate tectonics, you may have parts of this cycle, but it is broken because you do not have the recycling link.”
It has also been speculated that the lack of tectonic action on Venus contributed to its runaway greenhouse effect, which resulted in the immense temperatures it has today.
Most planets don’t have a moon as massive as ours is, and the collision that formed the moon is very fine-tuned for life. This is just one of the many factors that needs to be present in order to have a planet that supports complex, carbon-based life.
If you want to learn more about this data, I recommend watching “The Privileged Planet” DVD, and someone posted it on YouTube:
If you haven’t seen it, and have 90 minutes, this is time well-spent.
Here’s an article from Evolution News that talks about liquid water and tidal locking, but it has even more factors that need to be fine-tuned for habitability.
Stars with masses of 0.1-0.5 solar mass make up 75 percent of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy.6 These represent the red dwarfs, the M class. But these stars have low effective temperatures, and thus emit their peak radiation at longer wavelengths (red and near-infrared).7 They can have stable continuously habitable zones over long time scales, up to 10 billion years, barring other disruptions. It is also easier to detect terrestrial sized planets around them.8 But a serious problem with red dwarf stars in the K and M classes is their energetic flares and coronal mass ejection events. Potentially habitable planets need to orbit these stars closer, to be in these stars’ habitable zones. Yet the exposure to their stellar winds and more frequent and energetic flares becomes a serious issue for habitability. Because of these stars’ smaller mass, ejections get released with more violence.9 Any planet’s atmosphere would be subject to this ionizing radiation, and likely expose any surface life to much more damaging radiation.10 The loss of atmospheres in these conditions is likely, but the timescales are dependent on several factors including the planet’s mass, the extent of its atmosphere, the distance from the parent star, and the strength of the planet’s magnetic field.11 To protect its atmosphere for a long period, like billions of years, a planet with more mass and thus higher gravity could hold on to the gases better. But this larger planet would then hold on to lighter gases, like hydrogen and helium, and prevent an atmosphere similar to Earth’s from forming.12 Another consequence is that the increased surface pressure would prevent water from being in the liquid phase.13
So again, you need to have a huge, massive star in order to hold the planet in orbit over LONG distances. If it’s a short distance, you not only have the tidal-locking problem, but you also have this solar activity problem (flares, coronal ejections).
But wait! There’s more:
Another stellar parameter for advanced life has to do with UV (ultra-violet) radiation. The life-support star must provide just enough UV radiation, but not too much. UV radiation’s negative effects on DNA are well known, and any life support body must be able to sustain an atmosphere to shield them. Yet the energy from UV radiation is also needed for biochemical reactions. So life needs enough UV radiant to allow chemical reactions, but not so much as to destroy complex carbon molecules like DNA. Just this flux requirement alone requires the host star have a minimum stellar mass of 0.6 solar masses, and a maximum mass of 1.9 solar masses.14
So the ultra-violet radiation that is emitted has to be finely-tuned. (I’m guessing this assumes some sort of chemical origin-of-life scenario)
Another requirement for habitable planets is a strong magnetic field to prevent their atmosphere from being lost to the solar winds. Planets orbiting a red dwarf star are also more affected by the star’s tidal effects, slowing the planet’s rotation rate. It is thought that strong magnetic fields are generated in part by the planet’s rotation.15 If the planet is tidally braked, then any potential for a significant magnetic field is likely to be seriously degraded. This will lead to loss of water and other gases from the planet’s atmosphere to the stellar winds.16 We see this in our solar system, where both Mercury and Venus, which orbit closer to the Sun than Earth, have very slow rotation rates, and very modest magnetic fields. Mercury has very little water, and surprisingly, neither does Venus. Even though Venus has a very dense atmosphere, it is very dry. This is due to UV radiation splitting the water molecules when they get high in the atmosphere, and then the hydrogen is lost to space, primarily, again, by solar wind.17
You have to hold on to your umbrella (atmosphere), or you get hit with dangerous rain (solar winds).
So a few more factors there, and remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to circumstellar habitability constraints.