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Unusual Dwarf Star May Reveal New Insights into Life on Other Planets

Jun 03, 2013 07:51 PM EDT

John Gizis of the University of Delaware has his eye on what he says is a highly unusual dwarf star with possible clues into the likelihood of finding life on other planets as well as the behavior of the Sun, according to

Located just 53 light-years from Earth, Gizis, who discovered it two years ago using a ground-based telescope, has been working through information gathered by the Kepler mission.

About once a week, he said, he watches as the star flares, heating up from 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit to 14,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes before slowly cooling back down.

"We saw these white-light flares, which were a first for such a cool star," Gizis said. "We hope we can use what we're learning to understand what's happening with our Sun - how flares work there and how magnetic fields in stars behave."

Furthermore, he said, these flares may indicate that conditions for life on other planets near similar activity are more dangerous than previously thought.

Launched in 2009, Kepler was tasked with finding other Earth-like planets around other stars. During the last few years its confirmed 132 planets and spotted more than 2,700 potential ones, according to NASA; however, recent technical malfunctions on the space telescope may mean its journey is coming to an end three years earlier than planned.

In the mean time, Gizis estimates he may need a full six months just to analyze the information Kepler’s already gathered, after which point he plans on continuing his studies of the dwarf star using different equipment.

"What was really marvelous about Kepler is that it was able to watch about 160,000 stars for four years without a break, which would have been impossible otherwise," Gizis said. "And now that we know what we're looking for, we can continue to observe the L dwarf with other telescopes."

The star, called W1906+40, is smaller than Jupiter, far cooler than Sun and “many billions” of years old, according to Gizis who will presented his discoveries June 2 at the 222nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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