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30 September 2015

Earth-like planets around small stars likely have protective magnetic fields, aiding chance for life


Earth-like planets orbiting close to small stars probably have magnetic fields that protect them from stellar radiation and help maintain surface conditions that could be conducive to life, according to research from astronomers at the University of Washington.

A planet's magnetic field emanates from its core and is thought to deflect the charged particles of the stellar wind, protecting the atmosphere from being lost to space. Magnetic fields, born from the cooling of a planet's interior, could also protect life on the surface from harmful radiation, as the Earth's magnetic field protects us.
Low-mass stars are among the most common in the universe. Planets orbiting near such stars are easier for astronomers to target for study because when they transit, or pass in front of, their host star, they block a larger fraction of the light than if they transited a more massive star. But because such a star is small and dim, its habitable zone—where an orbiting planet gets the heat necessary to maintain life-friendly liquid water on the surface—also lies relatively close in.
And a planet so close to its star is subject to the star's powerful gravitational pull, which could cause it to become tidally locked, with the same side forever facing its host star, as the moon is with the Earth. That same gravitational tug from the star also creates tidally generated heat inside the planet, or tidal heating. Tidal heating is responsible for driving the most volcanically active body in our solar system, Jupiter's moon Io.

And since small or low mass stars are particularly active early in their lives—for the first few billion years or so—"magnetic fields can exist precisely when life needs them the most."