NASA will launch two more rocket launchers from northern Australia during the first half of July after a successful launch on June 26. These missions will help scientists understand how starlight affects the planet’s atmosphere, possibly making or breaking its potential. To support life as we can.
The two machines will investigate Alpha Centauri A and B – two stars like the Sun next to ours – using bright and distant ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light, which has a shorter wavelength than the human eye, is crucial in searching for life. A small amount of ultraviolet light can help create the cells needed for life, but too much can destroy the atmosphere, leaving the planet as lifeless as we know it.
“Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun contributed to how Mars lost its atmosphere and how Venus turned into a dry, barren wasteland,” said Brian Fleming, an astronomer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chief investigator at one of the missions, Dual-channel Extreme Ultraviolet Continuum Experiment, or DEUCE. “Understanding ultraviolet radiation is important in understanding what makes the planet resilient.”
Of the more than 5,000 exoplanets known throughout the galaxy, only the Earth is known for its biological balance. In searching for other exoplanets that can hold life in the way we learn, astronomers have focused on planets orbiting the Earth’s crust – defined as the distances from the star at which the Earth’s temperature can support water.
“But that is a key way to divide the living space,” Fleming said.
Although water is part of the planet’s atmosphere, for our world to support a biological system similar to Earth, it also needs space. If the habitat were washed away by too much ultraviolet radiation, water vapor in the upper atmosphere would evaporate, and the planet would quickly dry out. The atmosphere can also be affected by radiation and the intense heat of the star holding the Earth, placing more space on the harmful ultraviolet radiation, which can separate DNA-like molecules.
But the exact amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by various stars is still unknown. Without accurate knowledge, astronomers cannot predict which planets might have life.
“We need to understand the stars to understand any planets we find there,” said Kevin France, an astronomer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chief investigator for the Suborbital Imaging Spectrograph for Transition region Irradiance from Nearby Exoplanet host stars, or SISTINE, mission.
DEUCE and SISTINE will take these significant amounts of ultraviolet light to help reduce the exploration of the habitable planets. Starting only a week apart, the two machines will work together to get the complete picture of ultraviolet light from Alpha Centauri A and B.
Researchers have chosen Alpha Centauri A and B because they can serve as a valuable guide for measuring observations from the Sun – the only star with its ultraviolet rays. Ultraviolet light absorbs dust and gas into the atmosphere. This makes it almost impossible to measure ultraviolet light from distant stars at the level required for these types of analyzes. The Alpha Centauri system, however, is 4.3 light-years away, so close that most of its ultraviolet light reaches us before being absorbed.