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Earth gets first radio signals from a planet outside of Solar System

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The Low-Frequency Array, the world's most powerful radio antenna, was used to pick up the signals.

Astronomers have discovered for the first time stars that are emitting radio signals, implying the presence of hidden planets around them. The signals were picked up by the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR), the world's most powerful radio antenna, which is located in the Netherlands.

The new method of detecting hidden planets could point to the possibility of life in the system, which remains astronomy's biggest mystery. Do we seem to be on our own? Dr. Benjamin Pope of the University of Queensland and his colleagues at the ASTRON national observatory in the Netherlands discovered the signals. LOFAR has been used by astronomers to look for planets.

The astronomers discovered signals from 19 distant red dwarfs, four of which have planets orbiting them. "We've long known that planets in our solar system emit powerful radio waves as their magnetic fields interact with the solar wind," the astronomers said in a statement. "But radio signals from planets outside our solar system had yet to be picked up."

Previously, astronomers could only detect the very nearest stars in steady radio emission, with the rest of the radio sky consisting of interstellar gas or black holes. Because the team focused on red dwarf stars, which are much smaller than the Sun and known to have intense magnetic activity that drives stellar flares and radio emission, radio astronomers can now see ordinary stars when they make observations.

The team believes these signals are coming from the magnetic connection between stars and unseen orbiting planets, similar to the interaction between Jupiter and its moon, according to a study published in Nature Astronomy. "Our own Earth has auroras, commonly known here as the northern and southern lights, that also emit powerful radio waves. This is due to the interaction of the planet's magnetic field with the solar wind," said Io. Dr. Joseph Callingham of Leiden University, ASTRON and lead author of the discovery.

Researchers created a model to study the interaction of the magnetic field with the solar wind, just as it occurs between Jupiter and its Moon Io, which drives auroras on the solar system's largest planet. These auroras are far more powerful than those we see on Earth.

The model was then scaled up to detect radio emissions from distant stars.

"Our model for this radio emission from our stars is a scaled-up version of Jupiter and Io, with a planet encased in a star's magnetic field, feeding material into vast currents that similarly power bright aurorae," the researchers explained. These magnetic interactions, despite being lightyears away, indicate the presence of stars and planets hidden in their system.

"We can't be certain that the four stars we suspect have planets are planet hosts, but we can say that planet-star interaction is the best explanation for what we're seeing," Dr Pope said.

He went on to say that while follow-up observations have ruled out planets larger than Earth, there's nothing to say that a smaller planet wouldn't do the same.

The researchers hope that the launch of the under-construction Square Kilometre Array radio telescope by 2029 will "help see hundreds of relevant stars out to much greater distances," stating that the discovery is an important step for radio astronomy and could potentially lead to the discovery of planets throughout the galaxy.