Magnetic Kappa Ceti

Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Nearly four billion years ago, life arose on Earth. Life appeared because our planet had a rocky surface, liquid water, and a blanketing atmosphere. But life thrived thanks to another necessary ingredient: the presence of a protective magnetic field. A new study of the young, Sun-like star Kappa Ceti shows that a magnetic field plays a key role in making a planet conducive to life.

“To be habitable, a planet needs warmth, water, and it needs to be sheltered from a young, violent Sun,” says lead author Jose-Dias Do Nascimento of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and University of Rio G. do Norte (UFRN), Brazil.

Kappa Ceti, located 30 light-years away in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, is remarkably similar to our Sun but younger. The team calculates an age of only 400-600 million years old, which agrees with the age estimated from its rotation period (a technique pioneered by CfA astronomer Soren Meibom). This age roughly corresponds to the time when life first appeared on Earth. As a result, studying Kappa Ceti can give us insights into the early history of our solar system.

Like other stars its age, Kappa Ceti is very magnetically active. Its surface is blotched with many giant starspots, like sunspots but larger and more numerous. It also propels a steady stream of plasma, or ionized gases, out into space. The research team found that this stellar wind is 50 times stronger than our Sun’s solar wind.

Such a fierce stellar wind would batter the atmosphere of any planet in the habitable zone, unless that planet was shielded by a magnetic field. At the extreme, a planet without a magnetic field could lose most of its atmosphere. In our solar system, the planet Mars suffered this fate and turned from a world warm enough for briny oceans to a cold, dry desert. … (Harvard/CfA)

Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

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