XMM-Newton detects X-ray 'solar cycle' in distant star
EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: May 10, 2004
For years, astronomers have wondered whether stars similar to the Sun go through periodic cycles of enhanced X-ray activity, like those often causing troubles to telephone and power lines here on Earth. ESA's X-ray observatory XMM-Newton has now revealed for the first time a cyclic behaviour in the X-ray radiation emitted by a star similar to the Sun. This discovery may help scientists to understand how stars affect the development of life on their planets.
When the Sun is very active, large-scale phenomena take place, such as the flares and coronal mass ejections observed by the ESA/NASA solar observatory SOHO. These events release a large amount of energy and charged particles that hit the Earth and can cause powerful magnetic storms, affecting radio communications, power distribution lines and even our weather and climate.
During the solar cycle, the X-ray emission from the Sun varies by a large amount (about a factor of 100) and is strongest when the cycle is at its peak and the surface of the Sun is covered by the largest number of spots.
ESA's X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, has now shown for the first time that this cyclic X-ray behaviour is common to other stars as well. A team of astronomers, led by Fabio Favata, from ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre, The Netherlands, has monitored a small number of solar-type stars since the beginning of the XMM-Newton mission in 2000. The X-ray brightness of HD 81809, a star located 90 light years away in the constellation Hydra (the water snake), has varied by more than 10 times over the past two and a half years, reaching a well defined peak in mid 2002.
The star has shown the characteristic X-ray modulation (brightening and dimming) typical of the solar cycle. "This is the first clear sign of a cyclic pattern in the X-ray emission of stars other than the Sun," said Favata. Furthermore, the data show that these variations are synchronised with the starspot cycle. If HD 81809 behaves like the Sun, its X-ray brightness can vary by a factor of one hundred over a few years. "We might well have caught HD 81809 at the beginning of an X-ray activity cycle," added Favata.
The existence of starspot cycles on other stars had already been established long ago, thanks to observations that began in the 1950's. However, scientists did not know whether the X-ray radiation would also vary with the number of starspots. ESA's XMM-Newton has now shown that this is indeed the case and that this cyclic X-ray pattern is not typical of the Sun alone. "This suggests that our Sun's behaviour is probably nothing exceptional," said Favata.
Besides its interest for scientists, the Sun's cyclical behaviour can have an influence on everyone on Earth. Our climate is known to be significantly affected by the high-energy radiation emitted by the Sun. For instance, a temporary disappearance of the solar cycle in the 18th century corresponded with an exceptionally cold period on Earth. Similarly, in the early phases of the lifetime of a planet, this high energy radiation has a strong influence on the conditions of the atmosphere, and thus potentially on the development of life.
Finding out whether the Sun's X-ray cycle is common among other solar-type stars, and in particular among those hosting potential rocky planets, can give scientists much needed clues on whether and where other forms of life might exist outside the Solar System. At the same time, understanding how typical and long-lasting is the solar behaviour will tell us more about the evolution of the climate on Earth.
Further observations of HD 81809 and other similar stars are already planned with XMM-Newton. They will allow astronomers to study whether the large modulations in X-ray brightness observed in the Sun are indeed the norm for stars of its type. Understanding how other solar-like stars behave in general will give scientists better insight into the past and future of our own Sun.
XMM-Newton can detect more X-ray sources than any previous satellite and is helping to solve many cosmic mysteries of the violent Universe, from black holes to the formation of galaxies. It was launched on 10 December 1999, using an Ariane-5 rocket from French Guiana. It is expected to return data for a decade. XMM-Newton's high-tech design uses over 170 wafer-thin cylindrical mirrors spread over three telescopes. Its orbit takes it almost a third of the way to the Moon, so that astronomers can enjoy long, uninterrupted views of celestial objects.
SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA to study the Sun, from its deep core to the outer corona, and the solar wind. Fourteen European countries, led by the European Space Agency and prime contractor Astrium (formerly Matra-Marconi), built the SOHO spacecraft. It carries twelve instruments (nine European-led and three American-led) and was launched by an NASA's Atlas II-AS rocket on 2 December 1995. Mission operations are coordinated at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. The spacecraft was designed for a two-year-mission but its spectacular success has led to two extensions of the mission, the first until 2003, and then again until March 2007.