Studying exoplanets is the key to answering the age-old question, “Are we alone in the Universe?”. Since it’s almost certain that intelligent life doesn’t exist elsewhere in our solar system besides Earth, our only chance of finding something close to those “little green men” that we’ve all seen in the movies is to examine planets from other solar systems (aka exoplanets).
But even the detection of exoplanets isn’t an easy process at all. Previously, astronomers could detect exoplanets only when they were positioned in front of their host stars. Rarely planets are positioned that way because chances are way more significant for the observer to not catch the right angle. But now, scientists claim of having a more efficient method revealed by a team led by Harish Vedantham, an astronomer from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Auroras generated by the magnetic field are the key
For the first time ever, astronomers claim they have discovered an exoplanet by observing the auroras of its host star. To detect the star’s flares, the scientists used almost 20,000 small radio antennas that were spread across Europe. The rig is called Low Frequency Array (aka LOFAR). The astronomers’ conclusion was that the flares could only be produced by an exoplanet about the size of Earth, and present in the Goldilocks Zone (aka the habitable zone) of its solar system. Even more, they claim that the exoplanet is rocky and not made of gas as Jupiter or Saturn. And as you’ve already guessed, it’s a good candidate for hosting alien life forms.
Jonathan Nichols, who is an astrophysicist at the University of Leicester, speaks about the efficiency of the new method for finding exoplanets:
This could be a way of discovering more exoplanets than you can with the traditional methods,
It could be a way of probing the types of system that we usually find quite difficult to observe.
Further study is needed
However, not everybody from the scientific community is convinced that the new exoplanet-hunting method actually works. Evgenya Shkolnik, an astrophysicist from Arizona State University, proposes another hypothesis:
The reality is that we just don’t know what the stars are doing at these frequencies, on these timescales,
Yes, it makes it unlikely that it would be a generic flare, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be some giant super-flare that is really rare.
Therefore, we shouldn’t hurry up with the conclusions and wait for new studies regarding the claimed discovery.
The study of Vedantham’s team was published yesterday, February 17, in Nature Astronomy.