back to article Inviting nearby exoplanet revealed as radiation-baked hell

Seekers of new worlds for humans to colonise will have to look further afield than Proxima Centauri after the detection of huge solar flares showed its planets are probably uninhabitable. Proxima Centauri became a candidate for exploration, colonisation and/or alien investigation in 2016, when its second planet - Proxima …

  1. Joe Gurman

    Erm....

    "[A]fter the detection of huge solar flares...." Indeed, they'd have to be astonishingly power to reach from the Sun to a planet of Proxima Cen. "Stellar flares," maybe?

  2. Byz

    As Kenneth Williams said...

    “Frying tonight”

  3. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    I wonder what the former hypothetical habitants might have thought. "Ok, that flare was bad and fried our advanced tech. But the probability of this happening again in our lifetime and for generations to come is very low - it's maximum one in a million."

    At least, I guess, they won't have died in a "beast from the east" cold wave.

    1. Andy E
      Mushroom

      As Terry Pratchet once said, million to one chances have a habit of coming in nine times out of ten.

      Might be time to buy some sunscreen....

  4. smudge Silver badge
    Alien

    Need I finish the book?

    By sheer coincidence, I am just about halfway through "Proxima", by Stephen Baxter. I thought it took a little while to get going, but I am reasonably hooked now, and I will finish it. Published in 2013, it does indeed have the star flaring quite frequently, but not as badly as we know now.

    No spoilers, please!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Spoiler

      The ship sinks in the end

    2. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: Need I finish the book?

      It turns out he's been dead all along.

      1. DavCrav Silver badge

        Re: Need I finish the book?

        Oh, and he's the guy's father! And they are twins!

        1. smudge Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: Need I finish the book?

          Thanks, guys. In fact, he gets his memory back, realises that he's a replicant, and goes off with the aliens in their mothership.

    3. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: Need I finish the book?

      The butler did it!

      1. Simon Ward

        Re: Need I finish the book?

        Everyone dies in the end ... or am I getting confused with Iain M. Banks? (RIP)

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Need I finish the book?

          "Everyone dies in the end ..."

          Except Lazarus Long.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Need I finish the book?

        The butler did it!

        No.. it was Colonel Mustard, in the Den, with the Hammer... or maybe the Phaser that was not on Stun.

        1. VinceH Silver badge

          Re: Need I finish the book?

          Is this the one where Spock gets off with Ivanova?

          1. Crisp Silver badge

            Re: Need I finish the book?

            It turns out, he really is his father.

    4. William Towle
      Coat

      Re: Need I finish the book?

      > took a little while to get going

      ...but it explains every word as it goes along, and in the end it turns out the zebra did it?

    5. Sleep deprived

      Re: Need I finish the book?

      "Published in 2013"

      So the foreword should be an in memoriam...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Doesn't sound any worse

    than Britain after Brexit.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Doesn't sound any worse

      than Britain after Brexit.

      I wouldn't describe any of the muppets currently infesting Westminster as having flair.

  6. Headley_Grange Silver badge

    The up side

    At least they won't have any snow, so the trains will be running.

  7. I said the red button Igor!

    Please say you were being sarcastic when you referred to New Scientist as "august"!

    In today's dumbed-down new media era of anti-science and mistrust of experts and scientists, it seems to me that New Scientist and Scientific American (amongst others) have dumbed down so far that they are fast approaching red top status - from the wrong side.

    </rant>

    1. Spudley
      Coat

      Please say you were being sarcastic when you referred to New Scientist as "august"!

      August is in the summer.

      So referring to a publication as "august" surely just means that they know how to write a good article summary?

      amiright?

    2. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      In today's dumbed-down new media era of anti-science and mistrust of experts and scientists, it seems to me that New Scientist has dumbed down so far that they are fast approaching red top status - from the wrong side.

      Can't talk about the others (don't read 'em and I gave up on Scientific American decades ago when its gobbledegook quotient hit 100%), but New Scientist has definitely taken a turn for the better since it exited from the Reed Group. Prior to that I was planning to cancel my subscription, but those plans are now on hold pending an ongoing review.

  8. hekla
    Pint

    Not really near

    Proxima Centauri is about 248 300 ± 350AU from Sol and Earth and so far the furthest Earth has been able to send an operation space craft is 40 AU and that has taken decades, so not out of the error bar on the length of the trip.

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Not really near

      Ha! 4LY? That's hardly the distance to the corner shop...

      1. Unep Eurobats
        Angel

        Re: Not really near

        'I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.'

    2. Mage Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Not really near

      It's very near, 4 ly versus the approximately 100,000 ly of the diameter of our Galaxy, the Milky Way.

      Estimates of the number of galaxies in the observable universe range from 200,000,000,000 to 2000,000,000,000. Andromeda isn't the closest, just the nearest galaxy like ours.

      Our Oort Cloud is very wide and maybe from 0.03 to 0.08 ly at closest to as far as 0.79 ly to 3.16 ly. It's sparse, so hard to tell accurately.

      So Proxima Centauri B is very close indeed. Though the Oort Cloud outer edge might be a 1000x as far away as the Kuiper belt.

      100,000 AU = 1.58 ly. The Kuiper belt is about 30 AU to 50 AU. It's also not got a definite edge.

      Voyager 1 is still within the Kuiper belt (40 AU), hardly out the front door!

      1 AU = approximate distance Sun to Earth.

      Jupiter SEEMS far at about 5 AU and much beyond it solar power isn't much use. Hence EM or Cannae drive or Solar sails only serve to get a fixed velocity long before the Kuiper belt. Very very slow for interstellar travel.

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: operation space craft is 40 AU and that has taken decades

      All true, except it is really really near. It's just our probes are much more use for the Solar System. The two Voyagers and Horizon just happen to be exiting the Solar System eventually, but they, as are all of our probes, are Solar System probes. KBOs and Oort Cloud origin comets are really Solar System things. Though we did have a rock from interstellar space visit lately.

      A world our distance from GC in our galaxy on the other side is about 40,000 ly away, that's TEN THOUSAND times further than Proxima Centauri.

    4. Grikath Silver badge

      Re: Not really near

      "and so far the furthest Earth has been able to send an operation space craft is 40 AU and that has taken decades"

      The trajectories of the probes in question were never meant for interstellar travel to begin with... They were meant to get the probes to their designated targets as accurately as could be managed. Solar escape velocity was a secondary issue, really. Depends on how you look at it.

      Mind... I'd love and applaud any idea that would endeavor seanding a probe away at any appreciable fraction of c.... Doesn't even have to be aimed at anything in particular. The Science that can be done on board while it's speeding up would alone be well worth it.

  9. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    Plane of the flares?

    Surely it will depend on what plane the flares are in, and where the planet is in it's orbit? We've seen our Sun send out a few flares that would have toasted satellites, etc., but we weren't in the way at the time.

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Plane of the flares?

      True, sort of. Planets tend to orbit around the same plane as equator of the rotating star. Simplistically if the flare lasts half the time of the star rotation period (or orbital period of the planet), then 50% chance of toasting a near enough planet. The flares are mostly going to be in the same plane as the planets due to the star's rotation.

      Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, which are known to be more prone to flares. It's much less than the mass of our sun, so flares are worse. It's thought that red dwarfs are poor candidates for ET life as the goldilocks zone is much closer to the star and thus more easily damaged by the usually bigger and more frequent flares.

      Proxima Centauri b is really close to the star so a "year" (an orbit) is less than 12 days. Curiously star's rotation period is about 84 days.

      1. Martin Budden

        Re: Plane of the flares?

        And the other problem with red dwarfs' close-in goldilocks zones is tidal locking, which also makes any planets rather unpleasant (on the other hand the dark side would be shielded from the worst of the flares).

        1. annodomini2

          Re: Plane of the flares?

          "the dark side would be shielded from the worst of the flares"

          Depends on magnetic field or lack thereof

  10. Spudley

    There's been a number of breathless stories about potentially habitable exoplanets and just as many deflated follow-ups about how they're probably not habitable after all.

    But ultimately, all of this is based on fairly limited data. We haven't actually seen any exoplanets; we haven't measured their atmospheres; and our data set for what actually does constitute a habitable planet is limited to just one single example. We've made inferences and deductions, and I'm fairly happy that the science is good, but it is most certainly very much incomplete.

    What we really need is to get some more and bigger instruments up and running to help us find these planets, but also more importantly to *look* at them in detail after we've found them.

    I'm excited about TESS, which will be launching soon (even better, it'll be on a Falcon 9), but that will just be another "finding" mission, not so much of the "looking". I'm also looking forward to JWST, which sounds like it'll be even more capable, but that keeps getting delayed.

    Frankly, if we're still having debates about how much water is on the Moon (per the other Reg headline today), which is a body that we've actually been to, then I'm doubtful about how accurate we can really expect to be with what all these exoplanets look like.

  11. Alistair Silver badge
    Windows

    I for one

    will welcome our highly irradiated overlords when they get here.

    (Had some interesting discussions about extremeophiles with a chemist and a physicist recently. One has to have an open mind)

  12. Sane

    First!

    "Proxima Centauri became a candidate for exploration, colonisation and/or alien investigation in 2016, when its second planet - Proxima Centauri b - was spotted..."

    Proxima b is the first (and so far only) planet discovered to be orbiting Proxima Centauri. The designation 'b' is always given to the first planet discovered in a system. The parent star is considered 'a'.

    Apologies for the pedantry.

    1. Spudley

      Re: First!

      A true pedant never apologises for pedantry.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    meanwhile

    Meanwhile on Proxima B:

    Leading scientists have discovered a nearby solar system with a large yellow sun. The third planet in that system is tantalizingly close to supporting life. Unfortunately that planet has a mysterious magnetic field. Scientists speculate that the field would have trapped massive amounts of toxic oxygen on the planet (keep in mind, oxygen is commonly used to clean a plumbus, they have a whole planet full of it!). In addition, the yellow sun must flood the planet with high-intensity ultraviolet and infrared radiation, which surely killed off all life as we know it.

  14. David Pearce

    We are only good at detecting planets of red dwarf stars. Current technology would never detect Earth from Proxima, even if the Earths orbital plane happened to be lined up

    1. annodomini2

      https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/08/10/closest_star_has_4_earthlike_planets/

      We find them faster as the planets orbit closer, but it's not that we cannot find them.

  15. Steve Hersey

    Cue the Firefly theme ...

    "Burn the land and boil the sea, but you can't take the sky from me."

    Building decent space habitations is sounding a LOT more feasible than finding other habitable planets right now.

  16. DougS Silver badge

    Wait, only TEN times more powerful than the most powerful flare here?

    I sure hope there's a lot more decimal places between the most powerful solar flare observed from our sun and one that would kill all life. A flare 1/10th the power of one that increased the brightness of a star by 1000x means our most powerful flare would have made our sun 100x brighter than normal!

    Seems more likely Proxima's flare would be 10^10 times more powerful than the most powerful one observed here.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Flare star

    Sounds bad. Expect mutants.

    On the other hand, its not clear if life can evolve under truly mind-boggling radiation fields.

    Deinococcus radiodurans comes to mind and if there is complex life, maybe 3-5m down in the oceans it might be relatively quiet with very complex life evolving over time and able to predict the flares by "going deep" until it clears.

    I did read somewhere that certain organisms replace bases in their RNA, if the have also evolved the ability to use heavy metals as shielding then their cell membranes might be metallic.

    Perhaps based on bismuth indium alloy or something similar and in fact they may even be shape-shifters.

  18. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    I sent the article around the office...

    ...and am now just waiting for the snowflake contingent to moan about the infographic showing a phallic protrusion violating the peaceful vegan planet's safe space. I wish I were kidding.

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