How Many Earths?

More than 100 planetary systems have already been discovered around distant stars. Unfortunately, the limitations of current technology mean that only giant planets (like Jupiter) have so far been detected, and smaller, rocky planets similar to Earth remain out of sight.

Gas giant planet
This artist’s illustration shows a dramatic close-up of the scorched extrasolar planet HD 209458b in its orbit only 4 million miles from its yellow, Sun-like star. The planet is a type of extrasolar planet known as a "hot Jupiter."
Credit: ESA, Alfred Vidal-Madjar (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France) and NASA

How many of the known exoplanetary systems might contain habitable Earth-type planets? Perhaps half of them, according to a team from the Open University, led by Professor Barrie Jones, who will be describing their results today at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Milton Keynes.

By using computer modelling of the known exoplanetary systems, the group has been able to calculate the likelihood of any ‘Earths’ existing in the so-called habitable zone – the range of distances from each central star where life as we know it could survive. Popularly known as the "Goldilocks" zone, this region would be neither too hot for liquid water, nor too cold.

By launching ‘Earths’ (with masses between 0.1 and 10 times that of our Earth) into a variety of orbits in the habitable zone and following their progress with the computer model, the small planets have been found to suffer a variety of fates. In some systems the proximity of one or more Jupiter-like planets results in gravitational ejection of the ‘Earth’ from anywhere in the habitable zone. However, in other cases there are safe havens in parts of the habitable zone, and in the remainder the entire zone is a safe haven.

Nine of the known exoplanetary systems have been investigated in detail using this technique, enabling the team to derive the basic rules that determine the habitability of the remaining ninety or so systems.

The analysis shows that about half of the known exoplanetary systems could have an ‘Earth’ which is currently orbiting in at least part of the habitable zone, and which has been in this zone for at least one billion years. This period of time has been selected since it is thought to be the minimum required for life to arise and establish itself.

Furthermore, the models show that life could develop at some time in about two thirds of the systems, since the habitable zone moves outwards as the central star ages and becomes more active.

Habitable Moons

A different aspect of this problem is being studied by PhD student David Underwood, who is investigating the possibility that Earth-sized moons orbiting giant planets could support life. A poster setting out the possibilities will be presented during the RAS National Astronomy Meeting.

The 37th most westerly star in the constellation, Gemini–called Gem-37, is close to our own solar twin, or a Gemini-like counterpart to the Sun: 1.1 times our sun’s mass, 1.03 times its diameter, and 1.25 times its luminosity. It was recently selected in a survey of likely stars to harbor Earth-like planets in future surveys.
Image Credit: NStar

All of the planets discovered so far are of similar mass to Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. Just as Jupiter has four planet-sized moons, so giant planets around other stars may also have extensive satellite systems, possibly with moons similar in size and mass to Earth.

Life as we know it cannot evolve on a gaseous, giant planet. However, it could survive on Earth-sized satellites orbiting such a planet if the giant is located in the habitable zone.

In order to determine which of the gas giants located within habitable zones could possess a life-friendly moon, the computer models search for systems where the orbits of Earth-sized satellites would be stable and confined within the habitable zone for at least the one billion years needed for life to emerge.

The OU team’s method of determining whether any putative ‘Earths’ or Earth-sized satellites in habitable zones can offer suitable conditions for life to evolve can be applied rapidly to any planetary systems that are newly announced. Future searches for ‘Earths’ and extraterrestrial life should also be assisted by identifying in advance the systems most likely to house habitable worlds.

The predictions made by the simulations will have a practical value in years to come when next-generation instruments will be able to search for the atmospheric signatures of life, such as large amounts of oxygen, on ‘Earths’ and Earth-sized satellites.

Artist concept of star system, HD70642.
Credit:John Rowe animation


What’s Next

There are currently 105 known planetary systems other than our own, with 120 Jupiter-like planets orbiting them. Two of these systems contain three known planets, 11 contain two and the remaining 92 each have one. All but one of these planets has been discovered by their effect on their parent stars’ motion in the sky, causing them to wobble regularly. The extent of these wobbles can be determined from information within the light received from the stars. The remaining planet was discovered as the result of a slight dimming of starlight caused by its regular passage across the disk of its parent star.

Future discoveries are likely to contain a higher proportion of systems that resemble our Solar System, where the giant planets orbit at a safe distance beyond the habitable zone. The proportion of systems that could have habitable ‘Earths’ is, therefore, likely to rise. By the middle of the next decade, space telescopes should be capable of seeing any ‘Earths’ and investigating them to see if they are habitable, and, indeed, whether they actually support life.

NASA’s planned Kepler mission will monitor thousands of stars over a four-year period, searching for transiting planets. Kepler will be sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized worlds, if any exist, around several hundred nearby stars. These studies will then lead to the ambitious Terrestrial Planet Finder mission (2012-2015), which will examine extrasolar planets for signs of life.

In December 2001, NASA selected the Kepler Mission , a project based at NASA Ames, as one of the next NASA Discovery missions. The Kepler Mission, scheduled for launch in 2006, will use a spaceborne telescope to search for Earth-like planets around stars beyond our solar system. A key criterion for such suitable planets would be whether they reside in habitable zones, or regions sometimes protected by gas giants but with temperate climates and liquid water.

One NASA estimate says Kepler should discover 50 terrestrial planets if most of those found are about Earth’s size, 185 planets if most are 30 percent larger than Earth, and 640 if most are 2.2 times Earth’s size. In addition, Kepler is expected to find almost 900 giant planets close to their stars and about 30 giants orbiting at Jupiter-like distances from their parent stars.

Related Web Pages

Astrobiology Magazine New Planets
Transit Search
Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia
Planet Quest (JPL)
Kepler Mission
Habitability: Betting on 37 Gem
Infrared Telescope Powers Up
Alpha and Omega: Part II
The Mystery of Standard Candles
Inevitability Beyond Billions