Astrophysical radiation environments of habitable worlds
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Numerous astrophysical sources of radiation affect the environment of planets orbiting within the liquid-water habitable zone of main-sequence stars. This dissertation reaches a number of conclusions about the ionizing radiation environment of the habitable zone with respect to X-rays and gamma-rays from stellar flares and background Galactic cosmic rays. Gamma-rays and X-rays incident on terrestrial-like exoplanet atmospheres can be efficiently reprocessed into diffuse UV emission that, depending on the presence of atmospheric UV absorbers, can reach the surface. Extreme solar X-ray flares over the last 4.6 Gyr could have delivered large enough radiation doses to the Martian surface to sterilize any unprotected organisms, depending on the largest energy releases possible. These flares also pose a significant hazard to manned space missions, since a large flare can occur with little or no warning during an extravehicular activity. A flare as large as the largest observed could deliver radiation doses exceeding safety limits to an astronaut protected by only a spacesuit. With respect to particle radiation, the nature of Galactic cosmic-ray modulation by astrospheres means that habitable-zone cosmic-ray fluxes change by much larger magnitudes when passing through low-densities regions of the interstellar medium. In contrast to the popular idea that passages through dense molecular clouds are required to significantly enhance Galactic cosmic-ray fluxes and affect planets’ electrical circuits, background mutation rates, and climates, we find that densities of only 0.1–10 cm−3 , the densities of most interstellar clouds, are sufficient to bring fluxes close to the full, interstellar level. Finally, passages through dense molecular clouds are necessary to shrink astrospheres to within the habitable zone, but such events produce even higher interstellar hydrogen and dust accretion rates than have been estimated because of the combination of enhanced charge-exchange rates between stellar-wind ions and interstellar neutrals and the growing importance of the central star’s gravity on particle trajectories as the astrosphere shrinks.