Top 10 List of Habitable Stars to Guide Search

The searchfor alien life outside our solar system has been made a little less dauntingthanks to a new list drawn up by astronomer Margaret Turnbull that includes theknown stars most likely to support habitable stellar systems.

Turnbull,an astronomer at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, listed 10 of what she believesare likely to be habitable stellar systems, or "habstars," capable ofsupporting Earth-like planets and life. The list was presented at the recentannual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis.

Five of thestars on the list are thought of as good candidates for SETI astronomersseeking only to listen for radio signals from intelligent alien civilizations.They will be included in a list of targets for the AllenTelescope Array, a network of 42 linked radio dishes that is expected to goonline this spring in California.

The otherfive are for NASA's TerrestrialPlanet Finder (TPF), a planned space telescope that would attempt todirectly image Earth-like planets around nearby stars. The TPF mission wasscheduled for launch around 2016, but is currently on hold indefinitely,according to NASA's2007 budget plan.


Turnbull'slist of top-10 habstars were winnowed down from a pool of about 19,000potentially habitable star systems that she and SETI scientist Jill Tartercreated in 2003. A star is considered habitable if it is thought able tosupport a rocky planet with liquid water on its surface.

To narrowthe selection, Turnbull chose only those stars that were at least 3 billionyears old, which had masses that were no more than 1.5 times that of our Sunand metal contents that were at least 40 percent that of our Sun.

Stars thatwere less than 3 billion years old are thought to be too young for planets andlife to evolve. Stars that are more than 1.5 solar masses tend to burn outbefore life can emerge and stars with low-metal contents probably formed fromclouds that didn't have enough heavy metals to make rocky planets in the firstplace.

"Our firstand favorite targets are stars that are very similar to the Sun, stars thatlook like they're taking care of a planet that has Earth-like life on it,"Turnbull said. "These are places I'd want to live if God were to put our planetaround another star."

For now,there are no known Earth-sized planets in favorable orbits around Sun-likestars other than our own. But astronomer are confident such worlds will befound when technology allows.


Turnbull'stop habstar candidates for the Allen Telescope Survey:

  • Beta Canum Venaticorum: a Sun-like star about 26 light years away in the constellation Canes Venatici. This was Turnbull's top choice for SETI.
  • HD 10307: a near replica of the Sun but with a companion star. Located about 42 light-years away, this star has almost the same mass, temperature and metal-content as the Sun.
  • HD 211415: has about half the metal content of the Sun and is a little cooler; just slightly farther away than HD 10307.
  • 18 Sco: a near-identical twin of the Sun, located in the constellation Scorpio.
  • 51 Pegasus: The first planet beyond our solar system was detected around this star in 1995. Although that planet was a gas giant, Turnbull thinks 51 Pegasus could harbor rocky planets as well.

All ofthese stars have already been surveyed by SETI's ProjectPhoenix in the past without success, but the Allen Telescope Array willhave up to five times Project Phoenix's frequency range, making it more likelythat a habitable planet around these stars will be detected if one exists.


For the TPFmission, Turnbull chose the following five stars:

  • Epsilon Indi A: Turnbull's top TPF mission choice; this star is only about one-tenth as bright as the Sun and about 11.8 light-years away in the constellation Indus.
  • Epsilon Eridani: This star is a bit smaller and cooler than our Sun; it is located about 10.5 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus.
  • Omicron2 Eridani: A yellow-orange star about 16 light-years away that is roughly the same age as our Sun.
  • Alpha Centauri B: This triple star system is located just 4.35 light-years away and one of the Sun's closest stellar neighbors.
  • Tau Ceti: This star is a G-class star and is in the same brightness category as the Sun. Despite being relatively metal-poor, it is long-lived enough for complex life forms to evolve.

If NASA'sTPF mission is cancelled, Turnbull said there is a chance her list could beadjusted for the European Space Agency's Darwinmission, which is expected to launch in 2015 with similar goals.

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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.