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M-Dwarf Stars May Not Have Habitable Planets

Picky, picky, picky. It appears that we have become so blasť about our ability to discern star systems with planets that we are now winnowing out the uninteresting uninhabited star systems.

An Earth-like planet orbiting an M dwarf -- the most common type of star in the universe -- appears to have no atmosphere at all. This discovery could cause a major shift in the search for life on other planets.

Because M-dwarfs are so ubiquitous, this discovery means a large number of planets orbiting these stars may also lack atmospheres and therefore are unlikely to harbor living things.

The work that led to the revelations about the no-atmosphere planet, named GJ 1252b, are detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This planet orbits its star twice during the course of a single day on Earth. It is slightly larger than Earth, and it is much closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, making GJ 1252b intensely hot as well as inhospitable.

"The pressure from the star's radiation is immense, enough to blow a planet's atmosphere away," said Michelle Hill, UC Riverside astrophysicist and study co-author.

Earth also loses some of its atmosphere over time because of the sun, but volcanic emissions and other carbon cycling processes make the loss barely noticeable by helping replenish what is lost. However, in greater proximity to a star, a planet cannot keep replenishing the amount being lost.

(Via ScienceDaily.)

Science fiction great E.E. 'Doc' Smith has similar complaints during a manual search for habitable planets described in his 1934 classic Skylark of Valeron:

At the edge of the strange galaxy though they were, many days were required to reduce the intergalactic pace of the vessel to a value at which maneuvering was possible, and many more days passed into time before Crane announced the discovery of a sun which not only possessed a family of planets, but was also within the specified distance of a white dwarf star.

To any Earthly astronomer, whose most powerful optical instruments fail to reveal even the closest star as anything save a dimensionless point of light, such a discovery would have been impossible, but Crane was not working with Earthly instruments. For the fourth-order projector, although utterly useless at the intergalactic distances with which Seaton was principally concerned, was vastly more powerful than any conceivable telescope.

Driven by the full power of a disintegrating uranium bar, it could hold a projection so steadily at a distance of twenty light-years that a man could manipulate a welding arc as surely as though it was upon a bench before him which, in effect, it was-and in cases in which delicacy of control was not an object, such as the present quest for such vast masses as planets, the projector was effective over distances of many hundreds of light-years.

Thus it came about that the search for a planetiferous sun near a white dwarf star was not unduly prolonged, and Skylark Two tore through the empty ether toward it.

I also think that the scientists of today should take note of the word "planetiferous" and add it to the scientific argot of our time.

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