With the discovery of thousands of planets beyond the solar system, scientists are eager to learn if rocky "super-Earths," up to 10 times more massive than Earth, might also be able to harbor life.
Along with its aesthetic function of helping create the glorious Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, the powerful magnetic field surrounding our planet has a fairly important practical value as well: It makes life possible. By deflecting harmful charged particles from the sun and the cosmic rays that constantly bombard the planet, and preventing the solar wind from eroding the atmosphere, Earth's magnetic field has allowed multi-cellular life forms up to and including humans to develop and survive.
"Finding habitable exoplanets is one of the top three goals of the planetary science and astronomy communities," said Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Rick Kraus. "With these discoveries come many questions: What do these planets look like? Is our solar system unique? Is Earth unique? Or more specifically, is Earth uniquely habitable?"
Those questions have inspired a current National Ignition Facility (NIF) Discovery Science campaign aimed at determining if giant rocky planets could have Earth-like magnetic fields. An atmosphere, mild climate and liquid water are usually considered the bare ...