NYU Abu Dhabi Astrophysicists Just Discovered the Secret Clue to Finding Habitable Planets
It turns out that the recipe for a habitable, Earth-like planet is lot more complicated than we ever imagined: You need stable temperatures, liquid water (but not too much of it), a lack of interstellar radiation, and an orbit in the 'Goldilocks zone', where the planet is close enough to be warm, but not close enough to get scorched. Then again, life can survive a pretty hefty dose of radiation, and the Goldilocks zone may not be as narrow as we thought.
Now, NYU Abu Dhabi scientists have discovered new criteria for judging whether a planet would make a good host to life: the presence of 'giant' planets, which are between 10 and 1,000 times the size of Earth.
New research from New York University Abu Dhabi and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surveyed 147 solar systems and found that giant planets in close proximity to smaller, Earth-like planets have the potential to destabilize the latter's orbits, causing them to move farther away from the star, toward the edge of the system. Without a stable orbit, even excellent candidates for life can become inhospitable. This means that the search for habitable planets should include a check to see if there are any large planets nearby that could threaten them.
According to Nikolaos Georgakarakos, "This is an important insight to inform follow-up investigations. It would not make sense to search for Earth 2.0 in a system where a giant planet stirs the orbit of any neighboring terrestrial planet in the habitable zone so much that its climate collapses."
However, the mere presence of a giant planet doesn't immediately spell doom. According to Siegfried Eggl, another researcher: "Perhaps most surprisingly, our findings suggest that, under certain conditions, the presence of a giant planet can actually increase the size of the habitable zone, which is the area where your terrestrial planet receives the right amount of light in order to support liquid water on its surface."