National Geographic Daily News
An artists conception of an Exoplanet.

An artist's conception of an exoplanet orbiting a star 30 light-years away from Earth.

Photograph by NASA

Andrew Fazekas

for National Geographic

Published July 3, 2013

The number of potentially habitable worlds circling red dwarf stars—the most abundant type of star in our Milky Way galaxy—may have just doubled to 60 billion, a new study suggests.

Using global climate models originally created for studying global warming on Earth, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University created 3-D models of how large-scale cloud patterns affect atmospheric temperatures on Earth-size planets orbiting stars smaller and cooler than our sun. (See also: "'Shocking' Superstorm Seen on Exoplanet—A First.")

So what's new? Researchers found that the atmospheric circulation and cloud cover on these exoplanets meant these worlds could orbit their stars more closely than previously thought—expanding the habitable zone around red dwarf stars.

Computer simulations developed by Dorian Abbot, a planetary scientist at the University of Chicago, show that we should be looking at orbits much closer to red dwarfs than we've done in the past for worlds that can support liquidwater and, possibly, life. (Related: "Think Outside the Box to Find Extraterrestrial Life.")

And since red dwarfs are the most common type of star populating the universe, future searches for habitable planets may want to focus on them.

Why is it important? "While we don't have an accurate estimate because they are hard to see, we believe that there are roughly 100 billion red dwarfs in just the Milky Way galaxy alone," said Abbot, co-author of the new study published this week in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"So with these cool dwarf stars being the most common in our galaxy, the closest habitable-zone planet we may find will most likely be orbiting this type of star."

What also makes red dwarf systems such a cosmic catch is that the stars are so small. That means the relative size of any orbiting planet will be larger.

This is a key factor when using the transit method—where a star's brightness dims when a planet glides in front of its host star—to search for exoplanets. (Related: "Bumper Crop of Habitable Worlds Discovered?")

And since red dwarfs are cooler than the sun, their habitable zone—where water can exist in liquid form—will be much closer in than the habitable zones of other types of stars. The result would be exoplanets that experience a year lasting only 30 to 40 days instead of 365 days like on Earth.

Exoplanets orbiting in such habitable zones are so close to their star that they are tidally locked, meaning that they always present the same face to their star.

Since the same face of the planet always points to the star, that half heats upquickly and air rises, creating a global atmospheric circulation and large-scale cloud cover.

The computer models show that these clouds would reflect much of the incoming starlight, thus cooling the planet.

What does this mean? "What this means for planet hunters is that we get to see more orbits, and obtain more measurements, so in the end our hunting techniques just work better," explained Abbot. "We can look for planets hugging their host red dwarf stars much closer than we previously thought was possible.

"Even though the planet is being exposed to twice as much solar energy, we now think there could still be plenty of liquid water on its surface," he said.

Abbot and his team will probably have to wait a few more years to test their findings, when Hubble's more powerful successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, launches in 2018.

15 comments
Charles Woods
Charles Woods

The universe was made to be inhabited, so the Bible says.  With the discovery of exo planets in our galaxy, it's inevitable that we would discover a way to travel to these distances, light years away.  Compare that to the days when the Earth was thought to be flat.  Once we discovered that the Earth was indeed round by crossing over the oceans in very slow ships, we soon discovered how to cross the oceans in airplanes and jets!  Likewise, I believe we'll discover how to harness wormholes by compressing space and time such as Bruce Gernon's accidental discovery of a time warp in the Bermuda Triangle.  We just have to learn how to recreate it, harness it, and control it.  We're on the verge of doing that now, it's just a matter of time!

Gary Branigan
Gary Branigan

Maybe there are undiscovered systems like this closer than the presently known closest stars? If they exist, they may offer the only real alternative for human colonization. We will never survive as a people long enough to develop the technology needed to travel travel to stars four light years or more from earth.  These stars offer the most hope of planets that are not only habitable but with the possibility for extreme extension of their habitability. Unless the sunlit (starlit? Yes I know only our star is called "Sol") side is cloud covered there is a possibility of endless "solar" power. If it is cloud covered, thermocouple power can be generated by grids using the temperature differential between the hot and cold side. With that power resources, especially water, can be moved to the hot side to farms and underground habitats and vast habitats and even the soil can be warmed in the cold side. Rocket fuel will not be a problem. That will be derived via electrolysis of water to hydrogen and Oxygen. If the planet is a little smaller than, earth, less will be needed per rocket.

The the verdict is still out on whether there are other adverse affects of a planet being to close to the parent star that might render it uninhabitable such as radiation, solar flares, etc.

ANITA RAMTEKE
ANITA RAMTEKE

I strongly believe that there is a supreme power behind controlling the world. we can not exactly say that there must have been some reason behind existence this beautiful world perhaps might not be! sometimes, something  comes about without reasons  and I know 99.99% won't agree with my statement but as you think profoundly, you'll be surprised on getting the same answer and peradventure might have done to the creation of this world. I suggest the curious minds to refer to Prof. P. LAXMI NARSU ( Prof. Dynamic Physics)

Litan Roy
Litan Roy

We are definitely not alone. There might be hundreds of civilizations out there somewhere, hidden in the starry world. Possibilities are quite high that some of them are light years ahead of us in terms of technological development. Possibilities are simply enormous. Its really a mysteriously beautiful universe. This magnanimity of our universe must remind the human kind that still we have miles and miles to go to fully understand the grand plan of almighty God. Amen.    

Merre Cris Elayon
Merre Cris Elayon

i just conclude

  that discovery might be one of the proofs that there's really a possibility that we're not the only living creatures here in the universe if there are billions of planets here that is habitable and could support life,right?..

S. Furtado
S. Furtado

it is interesting to know....  already the density of population in some cities or countries is so high.....  slowly we can explore the possibility of going to the other planets......  i hope we don't need a passport or visa to go there....

Bill Doyle
Bill Doyle

We need to make an effort to start creating the technology to explorer these worlds. Our future is in the stars.

Reynaldo Ronquillo
Reynaldo Ronquillo

Science keeps on suggesting things.

But the Bible teaches difinite things.

Diny Mulder
Diny Mulder

Dus ruimte zat in het heelal......toch!

Marshall Odom
Marshall Odom

Planetary atmospheres are constantly subjected to the impact of charged cosmic particles, with the majority originating from the host star’s stellar winds. The cosmic particles are highly pressurized and when the stellar wind is strong, they slam against the magnetosphere, potentially eroding bits of atmosphere if the magnetosphere is not strong enough. Planets with strong magnetic fields like the Earth are better equipped to deflect these particles, making them more suitable for life. A planet’s potential to sustain life is dependent upon its proximity to the host star; the ideal location is not too close and not too far from the host star in a region known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone or habitable zone. Since red dwarfs are significantly cooler than our Sun, their ‘Goldilocks’ zone would be located much closer in than in our Solar System. Planets in this zone are at the ideal temperature to sustain liquid water. Another essential quality is a relatively dense atmosphere.

New research indicates if the Earth was orbiting a red dwarf (just as it orbits our Sun) along the inner edge of the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, the magnetosphere would only extend out 35,000 km (21,748 mi) and could buckle under the intense pressure from the star’s magnetic field, smashing into the Earth’s surface . In order to sustain life, planets in this habitable zone must have very strong magnetic fields or be further away from the host star, decreasing the chance of having liquid water. If the pressure from a star’s magnetic field is too intense, the planet’s atmosphere may be slowly ripped apart leaving the planet uninhabitable.

Kevin Gunn
Kevin Gunn

Interesting: so, a "year" on one of these exoplanets equals 30 to 40 EARTH days.  On one of these tidally locked planets, a year would be one day long, no?  But there wouldn't be a concept of day and night, just dark-side and light-side. Would one of these planets' orbits be closer than Mercury's?

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