"That directly impacts whether or not you can claim that you have an Earth-like planet," she said.
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Bastien, who is working on a doctoral dissertation, was analyzing archived Kepler data for a totally different reason when she and colleagues chanced upon strange patterns in the data that they didn't understand.
"It was a complete surprise," Bastien said.
It turns out the pattern provides a quick and relatively reliable way to determine a star's evolutionary state. Stars like the sun, which is about 4.6 billion years old, eventually will evolve into red giants as they run out of fuel for nuclear fusion. The new study shows the surfaces of younger dwarf stars boiling more vigorously than older giants.
"What we are looking at here is the gravitational acceleration in the stellar outer layers, what we often call the atmosphere," astronomer Joergen Christensen-Dalsgaard, with Aarhus University in Denmark, wrote in an email to Discovery News.
"The typical methods used have uncertainties up to 150 percent. That very imprecise method is the easiest to do, and especially if you're dealing with 150,000 stars and you need to characterize them all, that's what you go to because it takes the least amount of resources. Our technique lets us beat that down to 25 percent, which is very, very good for this field," added Bastien.