Astronomers discover two dozen 'superhabitable' planets outside our solar system


Earth is the only planet we know that has sentient life – but astronomers have found two dozen exoplanets that may have better conditions for life than our home world.

A team led by Washington State University identified 24 ‘superhabitable’ planets out of more than 4,500 known exoplanets that could be a good candidate for life. 

They are older, a little larger, wetter and slightly warmer than the Earth and these factors, when taken together with a slightly cooler and longer-living star create better conditions for complex life to develop, the team explained. 

While no single planet meets all of the criteria for ‘superhabitability’, they all score higher than Earth overall. 

Even though the worlds are all more than 100 light years away – too far away for us to ever visit – the researchers say the discovery can help in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

All of the planets uncovered by the research team are more than 100 light years away. They looked at worlds that were potentially 'better for life' than Earth. NASA has found some similar to the Earth such as K2-18b (pictured) 110 light years away

All of the planets uncovered by the research team are more than 100 light years away. They looked at worlds that were potentially ‘better for life’ than Earth. NASA has found some similar to the Earth such as K2-18b (pictured) 110 light years away

Lead author Dirk Schulze-Makuch says it is important to focus space telescope time on likely candidates, and these have the most promising conditions for complex life.

Just because the team say the planets meet the conditions for ‘superhabitability’, it doesn’t mean they are actually habitable as our telescopes can’t see their atmospheres yet – that will come with new technology in the coming years.   

For the study, Schulze-Makuch, a geobiologist with expertise in planetary habitability, teamed up with astronomers to identify potential superhabitability criteria.

The team, which included Rene Heller of the Max Planck Institute and Edward Guinan of Villanova University searched through 4,500 known exoplanets.  

Over the next few years a raft of space-based telescopes will come online including NASA’s James Webb telescope, the LUVIOR space observatory and ESA’s PLATO. 

The criteria for a 'superhabitable planet' includes small islands separated by oceans, rather than large continents. This is a view of Bora Bora Lagoon - a 'paradise on Earth'

The criteria for a ‘superhabitable planet’ includes small islands separated by oceans, rather than large continents. This is a view of Bora Bora Lagoon – a ‘paradise on Earth’

SOME OF THE BEST ‘SUPERHABITABLE’ PLANET CANDIDATES BASED ON THE CRITERIA SET OUT BY THE RESEARCH TEAM
NAME  AGE OF PLANET  RADIUS COMPARED TO EARTH  TEMPERATURE  DISTANCE FROM EARTH 
KOI-5819.01 4.3 billion years 1.16 times larger  81F  2,700 light years 
KOI-5554.01  6.5 billion years  1.29 times larger  79F  701 light years 
KOI-456.04  7 billion years  1.77 times larger  58F  3,140 light years 
KOI-5715.01  5.5 billion years  1.8 times larger  53F  2,964 light years 
KOI-5135.01  5.9 billion years  1.85 times larger  88F  4,244 light years 
KOI-2162.01  7.5 billion years  1.59 times larger  262F  3,144 light years 
KOI-172.02  7 billion years  1.48 times larger  181F  2,433 light years 
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‘With the next space telescopes coming up, we will get more information, so it is important to select some targets,’ said Schulze-Makuch. 

‘We have to focus on certain planets that have the most promising conditions for complex life. However, we have to be careful to not get stuck looking for a second Earth because there could be planets that might be more suitable for life than ours.’

Habitability does not mean these planets definitely have life, merely that they likely have the conditions that would be conducive to life and are worth further study.

The researchers selected systems with probable terrestrial planets orbiting within the host star’s ‘liquid water habitable zone’ – also known as the Goldilocks zone. 

They don’t have the ability to say whether a planet it actually ‘wetter than Earth’, as defined by their criteria, but predict that those planets meeting other criteria such as size, distance from star and surface temperature, will have the required water. 

While the Sun is the centre of our solar system, it has a relatively short lifespan of less than 10 billion years – it is currently middle aged.

Since it took nearly four billion years before any form of complex life appeared on Earth, many similar stars to our sun, called G stars, might run out of fuel before complex life can develop if life takes any longer than it did on Earth.

As well as searching for systems with G stars, the team also looked for K dwarf star systems – they are cooler, less massive and less luminous than the Sun. 

K stars also have the advantage of long lifespans of 20 billion to 70 billion years. 

This would allow orbiting planets to be older as well as giving life more time to advance to the complexity currently found on Earth. 

FINDING SIGNS OF SUPERHABITABLE PLANETS INVOLVES A RANGE OF MEASURES

A superhabitable planet is a world more habitable than Earth for humans.

To be able to claim ‘super habitable’ status a planet has to meet certain criteria: 

  • In orbit around a K dwarf star 
  • About 5–8 billion years old 
  • Up to 1.5 more massive than Earth and about 10 per cent larger 
  • Mean surface temperature about 8°F higher than on Earth 
  • Moist atmosphere with 25–30 per cent O2 levels, the rest mostly inert gases 
  • Scattered land/water distributed with lots of shallow water areas and archipelagos 
  • Large moon at about 1–10 per cent of the planetary mass at moderate distance  – between 10–100 planetary radii
  • Has plate tectonics or similar geological/geochemical recycling mechanism as well as a strong protective geomagnetic field 

However, to be habitable, planets should not be so old that they have exhausted their geothermal heat and lack protective geomagnetic fields. 

Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, but the researchers argue that the sweet spot for life is a planet that is between 5 billion to 8 billion years old.

Size and mass also matter. A planet that is 10 per cent larger than the Earth should have more habitable land. 

One that is about 1.5 times Earth’s mass would be expected to retain its interior heating through radioactive decay longer and would also have a stronger gravity to retain an atmosphere over a longer time period.

Water is key to life and the authors argue that a little more of it would help, especially in the form of moisture, clouds and humidity. 

A slightly overall warmer temperature, a mean surface temperature of about eight degrees Fahrenheit greater than Earth, together with the additional moisture, would be also better for life. 

This warmth and moisture preference is seen on Earth with the greater biodiversity in tropical rain forests than in colder, drier areas.

Among the 24 top planet candidates none of them meet all the criteria for superhabitable planets, but one has four of the critical characteristics, making it possibly much more comfortable for life than our home planet.

‘It’s sometimes difficult to convey this principle of superhabitable planets because we think we have the best planet,’ said Schulze-Makuch. 

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‘We have a great number of complex and diverse lifeforms, and many that can survive in extreme environments. It is good to have adaptable life, but that doesn’t mean that we have the best of everything.’

The findings have been published in the journal Astrobiology

Scientists study the atmosphere of distant exoplanets using enormous space satellites like Hubble

Distant stars and their orbiting planets often have conditions unlike anything we see in our atmosphere. 

To understand these new world’s, and what they are made of, scientists need to be able to detect what their atmospheres consist of.  

They often do this by using a telescope similar to Nasa’s Hubble Telescope.

These enormous satellites scan the sky and lock on to exoplanets that Nasa think may be of interest. 

Here, the sensors on board perform different forms of analysis. 

One of the most important and useful is called absorption spectroscopy. 

This form of analysis measures the light that is coming out of a planet’s atmosphere. 

Every gas absorbs a slightly different wavelength of light, and when this happens a black line appears on a complete spectrum. 

These lines correspond to a very specific molecule, which indicates it’s presence on the planet. 

They are often called Fraunhofer lines after the German astronomer and physicist that first discovered them in 1814.

By combining all the different wavelengths of lights, scientists can determine all the chemicals that make up the atmosphere of a planet. 

The key is that what is missing, provides the clues to find out what is present.  

It is vitally important that this is done by space telescopes, as the atmosphere of Earth would then interfere. 

Absorption from chemicals in our atmosphere would skew the sample, which is why it is important to study the light before it has had chance to reach Earth. 

This is often used to look for helium, sodium and even oxygen in alien atmospheres.  

This diagram shows how light passing from a star and through the atmosphere of an exoplanet produces Fraunhofer lines indicating the presence of key compounds such as sodium or helium 

This diagram shows how light passing from a star and through the atmosphere of an exoplanet produces Fraunhofer lines indicating the presence of key compounds such as sodium or helium 



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