Skip to main content

Can this new model predict which alien worlds could support life?

An artist's depiction of an exoplanet with two moons.
An artist's depiction of an exoplanet with two moons.
(Image: © NASA/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/D. Aguilar)

It's a tough job to figure out which planets are potentially habitable, because we can only see so much detail in our telescopes.

Details of an exoplanet's atmosphere and climate, for example, are mostly out of reach. A new study, however, uses computer models to show how radiation-belching red dwarf stars, also known as M dwarfs, could affect a rocky planet's climate and make it harder for life to survive there.

A planet is considered potentially habitable if it has a rocky surface and orbits in a neighborhood surrounding its star known as the Goldilocks zone, which is at the right distance from the star to result in temperatures allowing water to exist on the planet's surface. But habitability is a complex metric that depends on not only where a planet is situated but also its climate and the temperament of its parent star.

Related: The Biggest Alien Planet Discoveries of 2019

Red dwarfs are ripe hunting grounds for exoplanet missions because they are dimmer and smaller stars than our sun. This star size makes it easier to spot planets traveling across a star's face as the planet orbits, or to measure the gravitational tugs of a planet as it circles the star. These stars, however, are known to blast out harmful radiation that could make it tough for any organisms to survive on a nearby planet's surface.

Planetary rotation is also an important factor in habitability. A slow rotation could progressively bake one side of the planet and freeze the other, beyond what life can handle.

The new study incorporates both factors to figure out how habitable a planet might be. The researchers said their study is the first to combine two streams of data — atmospheric chemistry and 3D climate modeling — to figure out how habitable a red dwarf stars' rocky planets might be. 

"These kinds of models have not really been used at all in the exoplanet literature studying rocky planets because they are so computationally expensive," lead author Howard Chen, a doctoral student in planetary science at Northwestern University in Illinois, said in a statement from the university.

The new study's results show some worrying scenarios for rocky planets exposed to a lot of stellar radiation. For example, planets that are regularly bathed in ultraviolet and X-ray radiation tend to lose a lot of water due to vaporization. Planets around quieter or inactive stars could keep water on their surface, which is a key metric of habitability.

A planet's chances of supporting life also depend on its atmospheric composition, the scientists found. Earth's ozone layer filters out much of the harmful radiation from our own sun, which is a relatively inactive star. But planets with very thin ozone layers receive more ultraviolet radiation on the surface, which, again, makes it difficult for life to survive there — even if the surface has life-friendly temperatures. The situation is exacerbated if a rocky planet orbits a volatile red dwarf star that sends out a lot of radiation.

These models cannot predict with certainty whether a given planet could support life, but with thousands of planets to study, the models can help scientists figure out where to look first, senior author Daniel Horton, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern, said in the same statement. "Our study can help limit the number of places we have to point our telescopes."

Those instruments could include NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which launches in 2021.  Webb also will be assisted by numerous planetary observations from ground-based observatories, as well as data from NASA's former Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft and the ongoing NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission. 

The research was published Nov. 14 in The Astrophysical Journal.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

  • William Pennat
    I've been arguing for years that red dwarf planetary systems are the worst places to look for life for several reasons. Because the so-called "habitable" zones of these stars are so close in, not only does this make Earth-sized planets subject to the punishing eruptions of radiation typical of red dwarfs, it also produces tidal locking. Neither of these conditions is terribly conducive to life developing obviously. Additionally, planetary orbits in most multiple star systems have serious stability problems. Thus my own (endlessly repeated!) suggestion is to limit the search for life-supporting planets to Earth-sized bodies orbiting single, sun-like stars in their habitable zones. I realize this cuts way down on the number of possible candidate planets and there is also the fact that such planets are much much more difficult to detect by either means (transit or gravitational wobble) than planets around red dwarfs (which have been the focus of exoplanet research). But so be it....
    Reply
  • rod
    Admin said:
    It's a tough job to figure out which planets are potentially habitable, because we can only see so much detail in our telescopes.

    Can this new model predict which alien worlds could support life? : Read more

    Good report and I note here "These models cannot predict with certainty whether a given planet could support life, but with thousands of planets to study, the models can help scientists figure out where to look first, senior author Daniel Horton, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern, said in the same statement. "Our study can help limit the number of places we have to point our telescopes."

    As the spectral types of stars dwindles because of studies like this, looking for Earth 2.0 is getting tougher. Class M red dwarfs may not be that good, class K stars are under review, apparently class G stars, looking for habitable earths did not work out well here. Moving to hotter stars on the H-R star diagram like class F, A, B, and O stars, seems even more fun :) The report here is showing some of the many variables that need to *align correctly* to make Earth habitable and other exoplanets too. This site shows 4168 exoplanets listed, The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
    I ran a MS SQL query. 234 exoplanets confirmed listed with red dwarf stars (spectral class M types). Minimum orbital period < 1 day and max near 730,000 days with masses, minimum 0.07 earth masses and max 64 Jupiter masses. Distances range 4 light years away out to 23976 light years distance.
    Reply