Earth’s magnetic field protects life on our blue planet — and astronomers just found evidence of a magnetic field on a rocky exoplanet 12 light-years away.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists reported detecting evidence of a magnetic field on a rocky exoplanet named YZ Ceti b. This planet orbits a star located approximately 12 light-years away from Earth, making it the first possible detection of a magnetic field on a planet outside our solar system. The observations were made using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescopes in New Mexico.
“This research shows not only that this particular rocky exoplanet likely has a magnetic field but provides a promising method to find more,” study author Joe Pesce(opens in new tab), director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), said in a statement.
Magnetic fields are a crucial component of a planet’s habitability because they play a critical role in protecting the planet’s atmosphere from the harmful effects of solar radiation. Without a magnetic field, a planet’s atmosphere can be eroded, which can ultimately strip away the protective blanket of gas necessary to support life. Therefore, detecting magnetic fields on planets beyond our solar system is of great interest to astronomers.
“The search for potentially habitable or life-bearing worlds in other solar systems depends in part on being able to determine if rocky, Earth-like exoplanets actually have magnetic fields,” Pesce said.
However, YZ Ceti b is not a habitable planet because it is too close to its star and orbits too quickly. As a result, it plows through material sloughing off the star, causing its magnetic field to interact with that of the star’s, which creates bright flashes of energy and radio waves. The radio waves that were observed by the team were an aurora on the star that was likely created by the interactions with the planet.
Although the researchers are not entirely certain whether the aurora is entirely caused by YZ Ceti b or if it is a feature of the star itself, they remain optimistic that these findings could lead to future breakthroughs in the search for habitable alien planets. Study co-author Jackie Villadsen, an astronomer at Bucknell University, believes that this discovery “could really plausibly be” the first detection of a magnetic field on a rocky exoplanet, but notes that additional follow-up work is necessary to confirm that the radio waves are indeed caused by a planet’s magnetic field.
“There should also be an aurora on the planet if it has its own atmosphere,” Sebastian Pineda, University of Colorado Boulder astronomer and co-author on the new research, said in the statement.
“This is telling us new information about the environment around stars,” Pineda added. “This idea is what we’re calling ‘extrasolar space weather.'”
Overall, the discovery of a possible magnetic field on YZ Ceti b is a significant step forward in our understanding of the characteristics and habitability of exoplanets. The findings could pave the way for further research and ultimately contribute to the discovery of new habitable alien planets.