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Updated model for identifying habitable zones around stars puts Earth on the edge

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February 3, 2013

Habitable zone distances around various types of stars (Image: Chester Herman)

Habitable zone distances around various types of stars (Image: Chester Herman)

Researchers at Penn state have developed a new method for calculating the habitable zone around stars. The computer model based on new greenhouse gas databases provides a tool to better estimate which extrasolar planets with sufficient atmospheric pressure might be able to maintain liquid water on their surface. The new model indicates that some of the nearly 300 possible Earth-like planets previously identified might be too close to their stars to to be habitable.

So far, scientists have found some 18,000 extrasolar planet candidates with only a handful of these the right size, distance and having the proper orbital characteristics to be potentially habitable. “Habitable” is very broadly defined as being very approximately the right size and having a temperature where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. It’s a very generous definition, but it’s still one that leaves a very large margin of error.

Part of the reason is the variables the scientists use to calculate the habitable zone. One half of the equation is the star itself. Is it old? Is it young? Is it hot? Is it cool? Is it a variable? These determine how far the habitable zone is from the star and how wide it is. Then there is the planet itself, with characteristics such as size and temperature used to fine tune the estimates.

The Penn State model is based on previous work by James Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences also at Penn State. In the current study, the habitable zone is calculated based on stellar flux incident on a planet, that is, the amount of light falling on it, instead of its equilibrium temperature.

It is not, however, a way of coming up with a simple temperature reading. Instead, it’s a complex computer model based on assumptions about the atmosphere of the planet and how it absorbs and radiates heat under given conditions. Even though these calculations are so involved they need a supercomputer to carry them out, they are still very simplified compared to reality and operate on a number of assumptions. For example, this study assumes a one-dimensional, radiative-convective, cloud-free climate. The team themselves admit that some factors may have been under or overestimated and the results will reflect this.

The team used updated absorption databases of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor, that are more accurate than those used by Kasting 20 years ago. These were fed into supercomputers at Penn State and the University of Washington and from this the habitable zone was calculated for various classes of stars.

The habitable zone was calculated between the point where the planet would be so hot that water would be hopelessly lost (the inner limit) and the point where the greenhouse effect would be too weak to melt ice (the outer limit). The results of the Penn State study indicate that the habitable zones are farther away from their stars than previously thought. This means that some extoplanets previously thought to be potentially habitable might not be so.

One disturbing finding of the study was that the Solar System’s habitable zone lies between 0.99 AU (92 million mi, 148 million km) and 1.70 AU (158 million mi, 254 million km) from the Sun. Since the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of one AU, this puts us at the very edge of the habitable zone.

This may seem like a good argument for moving to Mars, which has an average distance from the Sun of 1.52 AU, but the team is careful to point out that their model doesn’t take into account feedback from clouds, which reflect radiation away from the Earth and stabilize the climate.

According to the team, the model can be used to investigate the over 2,000 potential systems found by the NASA Kepler mission. It could also help the Penn States Habitable Zone Planet Finder (a spectrograph designed to seek water-sustaining planets) as well as NASA’s proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder telescope network.

A paper describing the team’s results has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, but a pre-publication copy is available for viewing (PDF).

Source: Penn State

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
8 Comments

I wonder where Venus and Mars fit into the habitable zone. It seem insane to calculate this without consideration of clouds.

Peter Boulanger
3rd February, 2013 @ 05:48 pm PST

On this updated model, Earth is very close to the edge of the habitable zone. In the upper right corner of the image, you will see that Mars is also within the habitable zone, but not as close to the edge of it.

robertswww
4th February, 2013 @ 05:44 am PST

"I wonder where Venus and Mars fit into the habitable zone."

If Earth is on the edge, Venus is outside the zone. Mars is of course inside the zone. The zone actually moves further out as the sun ages. So in a few hundred million years, Earth could be outside the zone as well.

"It seem insane to calculate this without consideration of clouds."

Cloud cover on a planet doesn't affect the habitable zone around a star though it certainly does play into the formula for determining if a planet is habitable.

Stradric
4th February, 2013 @ 06:23 am PST

This study seems to lack the most important factor which is the technology which would be available at the most likely times we would be in place to consider living on such worlds which is in its self a highly in calculable aim. A plant such as Pluto may not seem achievable now but whos to say that in 200 hundred years it would or could be made a paradise. The study is seriously flawed due to this fact,because as you are all aware gentlemen ... only technology will allow us to get to such places. For that reason such a study now is unnecessary.

Richardf
4th February, 2013 @ 07:38 am PST

Even if we do find planets in other solar systems that are within the habitable zone, we will never know if there is life on them because they're all too far away. End of story!

We are looking out thousands of light-years into space, looking for signs of life, and in the meantime, there are thousands of reports every year of UFOs, some of which are reported to contain beings. So what does this mean? If UFOs are real, they probably don't come from these distant habitable planets, but instead come from another dimension. They don't need to travel vast distances, in other words.

Dismiss this as a load of nonsense, if you wish, but something is causing thousands of people to report these strange incidents.

David Colton Clarke
4th February, 2013 @ 10:33 am PST

David Colton Clarke, what if they are using the other dimension as a way here and not as a place they live? That would then mean they could come from far distant planets. (maybe even distant times as well)

Mark Keller
4th February, 2013 @ 10:10 pm PST

Their calculations put Earth on the inside edge of the Sun's habitable zone?

Their calculations have to way off for Earth. The fact that ice exists naturally on this planet should put it on the *outer* edge of the habitable zone.

Gregg Eshelman
4th February, 2013 @ 11:51 pm PST

The study puts Earth at the "hot edge" of the habitable zone. The Earth has been habitable for over six hundred million years, much of that time much hotter than now before the cycle of ice ages intensified. Currently the predominant long term climate is far colder than we now have as we are in one of the relatively infrequent interglacial periods. Sooner or later the Earth will return to this norm regardless of the levels of carbon dioxide and other much more effective greenhouse gases (eg water vapour) - though if carbon dioxide levels have as much effect as some (unproven) models predict it may retard the process for a little while. Clearly the authors of this study need to reset their assumptions as the results don't match up with real long term climate.

Graeme Martin
6th February, 2013 @ 01:32 pm PST
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