Wobbly Alien Planets Could Be More Likely To Host Life According To NASA Study
Planets that possess extreme axis pivots could be more likely to possess habitable environments according to a new study from a team at NASA's Astrobiology Institute. The team, led by John Armstrong of Weber State University, argues that a planet that tilts one way and then the other within a short amount of time may be prevented from freezing over, even if it orbits its host star at a greater distance than is normally considered habitable.
"Planets like these are far enough away from their stars that it would be easy to write them off as frozen, and poor targets for exploration, but in fact, they might be well-suited to supporting life," says NASA Astrobiologist, Shawn Domagal-Goldman. "This could expand our idea of what a habitable planet looks like an where habitable planets might be found."
In the case of these wobbling planets, the boundaries of what we currently recognize as a habitable zone would be greatly widened and therefore it could potentially increase significantly the number planetary bodies that could be considered as life-supporting. But, considering the greatest tilt variation in our solar system is Jupiter's at around 7 degrees (Pluto possesses a variation of 17 degrees), is it really that likely that many planets could possess such an extreme tilt? According to NASA, planets orbiting the same star have been observed displaying a tilt variation upwards of 30 degrees when compared with each other. So they might not be common, but they almost certainly exist.
Indeed, earlier this year, NASA's Kepler telescope discovered a planet that they believe wobbles at a highly erratic rate and severity. Kepler-413b had a tilt variation in excess of 30 degrees over just 11 years, which when compared to Earth's 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years, is pretty severe.
If a planet was to possess a severe tilt, it could mean that its polar caps would receive enough sunlight to keep them relatively warm, thus greatly enhancing the likelihood liquid water being present. In fact, this latest study suggests that such a tilt could more than double the the distance at which a planet can orbit its host star and possess a habitable temperature.
"In those cases, the habitable zone could be extended much farther from the star than we normally expect," said project lead, John Armstrong. "Rather than working against habitability, the rapid changes in the orientation of the planet could turn out to be a real boon sometimes."
So, if you thought the crazy fluctuations in temperature of the last few days were hard to deal with, just try imagining a world in which the height of summer turned into winter and back all within a matter of weeks.