Sunday, May 9, 2021

Surprising Number of Exoplanets Could Host Life

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

Our solar system has one habitable planet — Earth. A new study shows other stars could have as many as seven Earth-like exoplanets in the absence of a gas giant like Jupiter. This is the conclusion of a study led by UC Riverside astrobiologist Stephen Kane published in The Astronomical Journal. The search for life in outer space is typically focused on what scientists call the “habitable zone,” which is the area around a star in which an orbiting planet could have liquid water oceans — a condition for life as we know it. Kane had been studying a nearby solar system called Trappist-1, which has three Earth-like planets in its habitable zone. Kane said:

Image from NASA's Juno spacecraft of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)
Image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. (Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS)

His team created a model system in which they simulated planets of various sizes orbiting their stars. An algorithm accounted for gravitational forces and helped test how the planets interacted with each other over millions of years. They found it is possible for some stars to support as many as seven exoplanets, and that a star like our sun could potentially support six exoplanets with liquid water. Kane said:

Why then does our solar system only have one habitable planet if it is capable of supporting six? It helps if the planets’ movement is circular rather than oval or irregular, minimizing any close contact and maintaining stable orbits. Kane also suspects Jupiter, which has a mass two-and-a-half times that of all the other planets in the solar system combined, limited our system’s habitability, saying:

Some stars have multiple exoplanets in their habitable zones

Only a handful of stars are known to have multiple planets in their habitable zones. Moving forward, Kane plans to search for additional stars surrounded entirely by smaller planets. These stars will be prime targets for direct imaging with NASA telescopes like the one at Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Habitable Exoplanet Observatory.  Kane’s study identified one such star, Beta CVn, which is relatively close by at 27 light-years away. Because it doesn’t have a Jupiter-like planet, it will be included as one of the stars checked for multiple habitable zone planets.

The Trappist-1 planetary system has three planets in its habitable zone, compared to our solar system which has only one. (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)
The Trappist-1 planetary system has three planets in its habitable zone, compared to our solar system which has only one. (Image: NASA / JPL/Caltech)

Future studies will also involve the creation of new models that examine the atmospheric chemistry of habitable-zone planets in other star systems. Projects like these offer more than new avenues in the search for life in outer space. They also offer scientists insight into forces that might change life on our own planet one day. Kane concluded by saying:

Provided by: Jules Bernstein, University of California — Riverside [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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