Chasing Extrasolar Space Weather

Earth's magnetic field acts like a giant shield, protecting the planet from bursts of harmful charged solar particles that could strip away the atmosphere. Gregg Hallinan, an assistant professor of astronomy, aims to detect this kind of space weather on other stars to determine whether planets around these stars are also protected by their own magnetic fields and how that impacts planetary habitability.

On Wednesday, February 10, at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, Hallinan will discuss his group's efforts to detect intense radio emissions from stars and their effects on any nearby planets. Admission is free.

[Watch the recorded lecture]

[Watch the recorded lecture]


What do you do?

I am an astronomer. My primary focus is the study of the magnetic fields of stars, planets, and brown dwarfs—which are kind of an intermediate object between a planet and a star.

Stars and their planets have intertwined relationships. Our sun, for example, produces coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which are bubbles of hot plasma explosively ejected from the sun out into the solar system. Radiation and particles from these solar events bombard the earth and interact with the atmosphere, dominating the local "space weather" in the environment of Earth. Happily, our planet's magnetic field shields and redirects CMEs toward the polar regions. This causes auroras—the colorful light in the sky commonly known as the Northern or Southern Lights.

Our new telescope, the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array, images the entire sky instantaneously and allows us to monitor extrasolar space weather on thousands of nearby stellar systems. When a star produces a CME, it also emits a bright burst of radio waves with a specific signature. If a planet has a magnetic field and it is hit by one of these CMEs, it will also become brighter in radio waves. Those radio signatures are very specific and allow you to measure very precisely the strength of the planet's magnetic field. I am interested in detecting radio waves from exoplanets—planets outside of our solar system—in order to learn more about what governs whether or not a planet has a magnetic field.

Why is this important?

The presence of a magnetic field on a planet can tell us a lot. Like on our own planet, magnetic fields are an important line of defense against the solar wind, particularly explosive CMEs, which can strip a planet of its atmosphere. Mars is a good example of this. Because it didn't have a magnetic field shielding it from the sun's solar wind, it was stripped of its atmosphere long ago. So, determining whether a planet has a magnetic field is important in order to determine which planets could possibly have atmospheres and thus could possibly host life.

How did you get into this line of work?

From a young age, I was obsessed with astronomy—it's all I cared for. My parents got me a telescope when I was 7 or 8, and from then on, that was it.

As a grad student, I was looking at magnetic fields of cool—meaning low-temperature—objects. When I was looking at brown dwarfs, I found that they behave like planets in that they also have auroras. I had the idea that auroras could be the avenue to examine the magnetic fields of other planets. So brown dwarfs were my gateway into exoplanets.

Written by Lorinda Dajose