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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory monitors the habitability of exoplanets

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory monitors the habitability of exoplanets

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The search for life beyond Earth dutifully continues. Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton are participating in the hunt for new research, hoping to lay the foundation for future projects. Scientists use Chandra to study the radiation from nearby stars to determine whether an exoplanet orbiting these stars could be habitable. X-rays and ultraviolet light in high concentrations can damage an exoplanet’s atmosphere and reduce the possibility of life (as we know it).

This image shows a three-dimensional map of the stars near the Sun. These stars are so close that they could be good targets for direct image searches of planets using future telescopes. Blue haloes represent stars observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton. The yellow star in the center of this diagram represents the position of the sun.

Concentric rings indicate distances of 5, 10, and 15 parsecs (one parsec equals about 3.2 light years). Astronomers use this X-ray data to determine how habitable exoplanets may be based on whether they receive lethal radiation from the stars they orbit, as described in the latest press release. This type of research will help make observations with the next generation of telescopes, which will provide the first images of planets like Earth. Scientists are studying stars close enough to Earth that telescopes coming into service in the next decade or two — including the Habitable Worlds Observatory in space and the Extremely Large Telescopes on the ground — can image planets on the so-called “habitable world.” regions of the stars. This term defines the orbits where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planets.

There are several factors that determine whether a planet is suitable for life as we know it. One of these factors is the amount of harmful X-rays and ultraviolet light they receive, which can damage or even destroy the planet’s atmosphere. Based on X-ray observations of some of these stars, data from Chandra and XMM-Newton, the research team investigated which stars might have hospitable conditions for planetary orbits, allowing life to form and thrive. They study how bright the stars are in X-rays, how energetic the X-rays are, and how much and how quickly the X-rays change due to, for example, solar flares. Brighter and more energetic X-rays can do more damage to planetary atmospheres.

The researchers used nearly 10 days of Chandra observations and about 26 days of XMM observations available in the archives to study the X-ray behavior of 57 nearby stars, some of which have known planets. Most of these planets are giant planets like Jupiter, Saturn, or Neptune, while only a few planets or planet candidates are less than about twice as massive as Earth. These results were presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, by Breanna Binder (California State Polytechnic University at Pomona). NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center manages science from Cambridge, Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.


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