Massive stellar flare scorches hope of discovering life on Earth’s nearest exoplanet

Since 2016, the exoplanet Proxima b has been a top candidate in the search for alien life. But new findings show that a stellar flare might have scorched that hope entirely.


A massive stellar flare from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system, might have incinerated any hope that Proxima b, the star’s exoplanet, could support alien life.

In August 2016, astronomers announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri some 4.24 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet soon became a top candidate in the search for alien life because of its similarity to Earth: it's rocky, has a similar mass, and has temperatures that could support liquid water.

But unlike Earth, Proxima b orbits a red dwarf, a class of dim stars prone to cataclysmic flares that are powerful enough to destroy atmospheres. Proxima b is also much closer to Proxima Centauri than Earth is to the Sun, meaning that a stellar flare would hit the exoplanet with 4,000 times more radiation than we typically receive from the Sun’s flares.


One team of astronomers believes a stellar flare has already ravaged the exoplanet.

The news comes from a reanalysis of a study published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters in November 2017. The original study, led by Guillem Anglada of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain, outlined how the astronomers observed unusually bright light coming from Proxima Centauri in March 2017. Anglada’s team interpreted the light spike to be the result of a ring of dust,  similar to our solar system’s Kuiper Belt, that was scattering light in all directions.

But on February 26, 2018, another team of astronomers, led by Meredith MacGregor and Alycia Weinberger at the Carnegie Institution for Science, published a paper that questioned the original study. The new paper, also published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, showed how the Anglada team used calculations that averaged light measurements over a 10-hour period. Using different calculations, the team showed that the light spike occurred within a two-minute period.


The best explanation? A stellar flare.

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare,” MacGregor said in a press release, adding that astronomers have already observed that Proxima Centauri experiences smaller, X-ray flares. “Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

Small dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are the most common type of star in our galaxy, and astronomers have identified multiple exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zones around them. But given the violent nature of dwarf stars, any life that exists on planets within the habitable zones would likely also face the additional hurdle of surviving intensely violent radiation, as MacGregor pointed out above. This factor could help astronomers better hone the search for alien life in the future.

Anglada and his team are currently reevaluating the findings in the original study, though he said the flare can’t account for all of the extra light, according to Science News.

This puts a slight dampener on Michio Kaku's enthusiasm for sending postage-stamp-size spaceships to Proxima b:

 


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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.