Eight exoplanets have a good chance of being habitable

Astronomers announced today that they have found eight new planets in the “Goldilocks” zone of their stars, orbiting at a distance where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface. This doubles the number of small planets (less than twice the diameter of Earth) believed to be in the habitable zone of their parent stars. Among these eight, the team identified two that are the most similar to Earth of any known exoplanets to date.

“Most of these planets have a good chance of being rocky, like Earth,” says lead author Guillermo Torres of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

These findings were announced today in a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The two most Earth-like planets of the group are Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b. Both orbit red dwarf stars that are smaller and cooler than our Sun. Kepler-438b circles its star every 35 days, while Kepler-442b completes one orbit every 112 days.

With a diameter just 12 percent bigger than Earth, Kepler-438b has a 70-percent chance of being rocky, according to the team’s calculations. Kepler-442b is about one-third larger than Earth, but still has a 60-percent chance of being rocky.

To be in the habitable zone, an exoplanet must receive about as much sunlight as Earth. Too much, and any water would boil away as steam. Too little, and water will freeze solid.

Kepler-438b receives about 40 percent more light than Earth. (In comparison, Venus gets twice as much solar radiation as Earth.) As a result, the team calculates it has a 70 percent likelihood of being in the habitable zone of its star.

Kepler-442b get about two-thirds as much light as Earth. The scientists give it a 97 percent chance of being in the habitable zone.

Astronomers have also found evidence that the recipe for Earth also applies to terrestrial exoplanets orbiting distant stars.

The team targeted Kepler-93b, a planet 1.5 times the size of Earth in a tight, 4.7-day orbit around its star. The mass and composition of this world were uncertain. HARPS-North nailed the mass at 4.02 times Earth, meaning that the planet has a rocky composition.

The researchers then compared all ten known exoplanets with a diameter less than 2.7 times Earth’s that had accurately measured masses. They found that the five planets with diameters smaller than 1.6 times Earth showed a tight relationship between mass and size. Moreover, Venus and Earth fit onto the same line, suggesting that all these worlds have similar rock-iron compositions.

As for the larger and more massive exoplanets, their densities proved to be significantly lower, meaning that they include a large fraction of water or other volatiles, hydrogen and/or helium. They also showed more diverse compositions rather than fitting into a single group like the smaller terrestrial worlds.

The team also noted that not all planets less than six times the mass of Earth are rocky. Some low-mass worlds with very low densities are known (such as the planets in the Kepler-11 system). But for typical close-in small planets, the chances are high that they share an Earth-like composition.

“To find a truly Earth-like world, we should focus on planets less than 1.6 times the size of Earth, because those are the rocky worlds,” recommends Dressing.

Recipe for an Earth Like Exoplanet

Slightly larger than Earth Exoplanets have longer lasting Oceans

Earth’s water isn’t just on the surface. Studies have shown that Earth’s mantle holds several oceans’ worth of water that was dragged underground by plate tectonics and subduction of the ocean seafloor. Earth’s oceans would disappear due to this process, if it weren’t for water returning to the surface via volcanism (mainly at mid-ocean ridges). Earth maintains its oceans through this planet-wide recycling.

Schaefer used computer simulations to see if this recycling process would take place on super-Earths, which are planets up to five times the mass, or 1.5 times the size, of Earth. She also examined the question of how long it would take oceans to form after the planet cooled enough for its crust to solidify.

She found that planets two to four times the mass of Earth are even better at establishing and maintaining oceans than our Earth. The oceans of super-Earths would persist for at least 10 billion years (unless boiled away by an evolving red giant star).

Interestingly, the largest planet that was studied, five times the mass of Earth, took a while to get going. Its oceans didn’t develop for about a billion years, due to a thicker crust and lithosphere that delayed the start of volcanic outgassing.

“This suggests that if you want to look for life, you should look at older super-Earths,” Schaefer says.

Sasselov agrees. “It takes time to develop the chemical processes for life on a global scale, and time for life to change a planet’s atmosphere. So, it takes time for life to become detectable.”

This also suggests that, assuming evolution takes place at a similar rate to Earth’s, you want to search for complex life on planets that are about five and a half billion years old, a billion years older than Earth.

SOURCES – Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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