As astronomers gaze toward nearby planetary systems in search of life, they are focusing their attention on each system's habitable zone, where heat radiated from the star is just right to keep a planet's water in liquid form.
A number of planets have been discovered orbiting red dwarf stars, which make up about three-quarters of the stars close to our solar system. Potentially habitable planets must orbit close to those stars – perhaps one-fiftieth the distance of Earth to the sun – since those stars are smaller and generate less heat than our sun.
But new calculations indicate that, with planets so close, tidal forces exerted on planets by the parent star's gravity could limit what is regarded as a star's habitable zone and change the criteria for planets where life could potentially take root.
Scientists believe liquid water is essential for life. But a planet also must have plate tectonics to pull excess carbon from its atmosphere and confine it in rocks to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Tectonics, or the movement of the plates that make up a planet's surface, typically is driven by radioactive decay in the planet's core, but a star's gravity can cause tides in the planet, which creates more energy to drive plate tectonics.
"If you have plate tectonics, then you can have long-term climate stability, which we think is a prerequisite for life," said Rory Barnes, a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher in astronomy.
However, tectonic forces cannot be so severe that geologic events quickly repave a planet's surface and destroy life that might have gotten a foothold, he said. The planet must be at a distance where tugging from the star's gravitational field generates tectonics without setting off extreme volcanic activity that resurfaces the planet in too short a time for life to prosper.
Barnes is lead author of a paper to be published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters that uses new calculations from computer modeling to define a "tidal habitable zone." Co-authors are Brian Jackson and Richard Greenberg from the University of Arizona and Sean Raymond from the University of Colorado. The research was funded by NASA.
"Overall, the effect of this work is to reduce the number of habitable environments in the universe, or at least what we have thought of as habitable environments," Barnes said. "The best places to look for habitability are where this new definition and the old definition overlap."
The new calculations have implications for planets previously considered too small for habitability. An example is Mars, which used to experience tectonics but that activity ceased as heat from the planet's decaying inner core dissipated.
But as planets get closer to their suns, the gravitational pull gets stronger, tidal forces increase and more energy is released. If Mars were to move closer to the sun, the sun's tidal tugs could possibly restart the tectonics, releasing gases from the core to provide more atmosphere. If Mars harbors liquid water, at that point it could be habitable for life as we know it.
Various moons of Jupiter have long been considered as potentially harboring life. But one of them, Io, has so much volcanic activity, the result of tidal forces from Jupiter, that it is not regarded as a good candidate. Tectonic activity remakes Io's surface in less than 1 million years.
"If that were to happen on Earth, it would be hard to imagine how life would develop," Barnes said.
A potential Earth-like planet, but eight times more massive, called Gliese 581d was discovered in 2007 about 20 light years away in the constellation Libra. At first it was thought the planet was too far from its sun, Gliese 581, to have liquid water, but recent observations have determined the orbit is within the habitable zone for liquid water. However, the planet is outside the habitable zone for its sun's tidal forces, which the authors believe drastically limits the possibility of life.
"Our model predicts that tides may contribute only one-quarter of the heating required to make the planet habitable, so a lot of heat from decay of radioactive isotopes may be required to make up the difference," Jackson said.
Barnes added, "The bottom line is that tidal forcing is an important factor that we are going to have to consider when looking for habitable planets."
For more information, contact Barnes at 206-543-8979 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Vince Stricherz | Newswise Science News
Structured light and nanomaterials open new ways to tailor light at the nanoscale
23.04.2018 | Academy of Finland
On the shape of the 'petal' for the dissipation curve
23.04.2018 | Lobachevsky University
Physicists at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics, which is jointly run by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, have developed a high-power laser system that generates ultrashort pulses of light covering a large share of the mid-infrared spectrum. The researchers envisage a wide range of applications for the technology – in the early diagnosis of cancer, for instance.
Molecules are the building blocks of life. Like all other organisms, we are made of them. They control our biorhythm, and they can also reflect our state of...
University of Connecticut researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.
Repairing major load-bearing bones such as those in the leg can be a long and uncomfortable process.
Study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces is the outcome of an international effort that included teams from Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and the US.
Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia...
Novel highly efficient and brilliant gamma-ray source: Based on model calculations, physicists of the Max PIanck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg propose a novel method for an efficient high-brilliance gamma-ray source. A giant collimated gamma-ray pulse is generated from the interaction of a dense ultra-relativistic electron beam with a thin solid conductor. Energetic gamma-rays are copiously produced as the electron beam splits into filaments while propagating across the conductor. The resulting gamma-ray energy and flux enable novel experiments in nuclear and fundamental physics.
The typical wavelength of light interacting with an object of the microcosm scales with the size of this object. For atoms, this ranges from visible light to...
Stable joint cartilage can be produced from adult stem cells originating from bone marrow. This is made possible by inducing specific molecular processes occurring during embryonic cartilage formation, as researchers from the University and University Hospital of Basel report in the scientific journal PNAS.
Certain mesenchymal stem/stromal cells from the bone marrow of adults are considered extremely promising for skeletal tissue regeneration. These adult stem...
13.04.2018 | Event News
12.04.2018 | Event News
09.04.2018 | Event News
23.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
23.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
23.04.2018 | Trade Fair News