Warm welcome: finding habitable planets

Warm welcome: finding habitable planets

This artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone -- a range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the planet's surface. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zones of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth.

“If we can identify another Earth-like planet, it comes full circle, from thinking that everything revolves around our planet to knowing that there are lots of other Earths out there.”
- Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT

Discovering thousands of planets beyond our solar system counts as a “eureka” moment in human exploration. But the biggest payoff is yet to come: capturing evidence of a distant world hospitable to life.

Habitable Zone
To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the 'habitable zone' around stars--where it's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. 

We begin the search on familiar ground. On this planet, currently our sole example of a life-bearing world, the need for water is non-negotiable. So astronomers search the cosmos for similar environments. Around almost every “normal” star, including our sun, we can draw a band of potential habitability: the right distance and temperature for liquid water to exist. The key, of course, is a planetary surface where the water could pool. Both stars and planets come in many types and sizes, and the interplay of these factors determines the extent and influence of this “habitable zone.”

A giant, hot-burning star’s habitable zone would be found at a much greater distance than that of a smaller, cooler stellar dwarf. And if we stick with the plan—hunting first for what we know—then small, rocky worlds are our best bet for finding evidence of life as we know it (we’ll talk about “life as we don’t know it” in the next section).

So the ideal candidate is an Earth-sized, rocky world nestled comfortably within its star’s habitable zone—though scientists’ understanding of what makes up a habitable zone continues to evolve.

Wishing upon the right kind of star

That’s not the end of the story. While the size and composition of both planets and stars are critical to habitability, so is time. Big bright stars burn out far more quickly than their more modest counterparts. The brightest burn for only a few million years, then flame out; meanwhile, our sun has been shining steadily for 4.5 billion years, with about another 5 billion years to go. At that point it will swell to many times its previous size to possibly engulf Earth and the rest of the inner planets, though any lingering Earth life would long since have burned to a crisp.

Blue supergiant
Artist's concept of a blue supergiant star.

The first microscopic life forms are thought to have emerged about a billion years after Earth’s formation from the dust, globs and chunks of material that made up the infant sun’s protoplanetary disk. They might have emerged much sooner. But it took roughly another 3 billion years for multi-celled, macroscopic creatures to begin making their mark on the fossil record.

A few hundred million years could be enough time to produce microbial life, but might be far too short a time frame for large animals, especially the kind that begin talking to each other and building radio telescopes. Scratch big, hot stars off our list of likely candidates.

On the other hand, long-lived dwarf stars might be great places to look—even those with habitable zones so close in that rocky worlds within them would be tidally locked, constantly presenting only one face to the star as the moon does to Earth. Scientists once thought such worlds would be cooked on one side and frozen on the other, but further modeling and observations suggest that planet-girdling winds could even things out, providing some of these worlds with temperate climates.

The safest bet might be sun-like stars, with planets of comparable size and comparable orbits to Earth’s.

A growing handful of habitable worlds

So how is the search going? In just over 20 years of exploration, ground and space-based observations have turned up more than 3,200 confirmed exoplanets in the few slices of our galaxy we’ve been able to search. Add unconfirmed planetary candidates and the number jumps to more than 5,600.

Many of the planets found so far are gas or ice giants, with little chance of a solid surface harboring a warm little pond. But we’ve also found some rocky worlds in Earth’s size-range. Even with the expected advances in observing technology in years to come, we’re unlikely to know the precise nature of any life we might detect, be they crusts of algae or loping, six-legged giraffes. Still, among those rocky, Earth-like worlds, we could catch tantalizing glimpses of the right conditions for life.

But how can we tell if anybody's home? To find out, read on to the next article, 'Life Signs.'

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