The answer could be depressing: there is no life.
A paper published in the in The Astrophysical Journal Letters announces the discovery of an “extreme flaring event” from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun.
Detected in data from two years ago on May 1, 2019, the flare lasted for seven seconds, but the Hubble Space Telescope saw it increase in brightness by a factor of 14,000.
That makes it the brightest and one of the most violent ever detected in the Milky Way galaxy.
A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation that stars hurl into space after a release of magnetic energy.
Proxima Centauri is only about an eighth the mass of our Sun, a red dwarf star of a kind that are normally small and dim.
Not this one.
“The star went from normal to 14,000 times brighter when seen in ultraviolet wavelengths over the span of a few seconds,” said Meredith MacGregor, astrophysicist and assistant professor at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) and Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) at the University of Colorado Boulder.
What does that mean for life on the two exoplanets thought to be in orbit around Proxima Centauri in its “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist on their surfaces? “If there was life on the planet nearest to Proxima Centauri, it would have to look very different than anything on Earth,” said MacGregor. “A human being on this planet would have a bad time.”
Solar flares can strip away a planet’s atmosphere and expose any life forms to deadly radiation—and this one was 100 times more powerful than anything seen from our Sun.
“Proxima Centauri’s planets are getting hit by something like this not once in a century, but at least once a day, if not several times a day,” said MacGregor.
Hopes for life on Proxima Centauri’s two planets have recently been fast fading.
As well as detections of solar flares in recent years, it’s also possible that the Proxima b and the recently discovered (though likely colder) Proxima c are being sterilized of life by large asteroid impacts.
The scientists, led by the University of Colorado Boulder, observed the star for 40 hours using a whopping nine telescopes. That included the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and du Pont Telescope, and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had this kind of multi-wavelength coverage of a stellar flare,” said MacGregor. “Usually, you’re lucky if you can get two instruments.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.