For more than 20 years now — even before the first detection of an extra-solar planet — scientists have posited, defined and then debated the existence and nature of a habitable zone. It’s without a doubt a central scientific concept, and the idea has caught on with the public (and the media) too. The discovery of “habitable zone planets” has become something of a staple of astronomy and astrophysics.
But beneath the surface of this success is a seemingly growing discomfort about how the term is used. Not only do scientists and the general public have dissimilar understandings of what a habitable zone entails, but scientists have increasingly divergent views among themselves as well.
And all this is coming to the fore at a time when a working definition of the habitable zone is absolutely essential to planning for what scientists and enthusiasts hope will be a long-awaited major space telescope focused first and foremost on exoplanets. If selected by NASA as a flagship mission for the 2030s, how such a telescope is designed and built will be guided by where scientists determine they have the best chance of finding signs of extraterrestrial life — a task that has ironically grown increasingly difficult as more is learned about those distant solar systems and planets.
Most broadly, the habitable zone is the area around a star where orbiting planets could have conditions conducive to life. Traditionally, that has mean most importantly orbiting far enough from a star that it doesn’t become a desiccated wasteland and close enough that it is not forever frozen. In this broad definition, the sometimes presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is the paramount issue in terms of possible extraterrestrial life.
It was James Kasting of Penn State University, Daniel Whitmire, then of Louisiana State University, and Ray Reynolds of NASA’s Ames Research Center who defined the modern outlines of a habitable zone, though others had weighed in earlier. But Kasting and the others wrote with greater detail and proposed a model that took into account not only distance from the host star, but also the presence of planetary systems that could maintain relatively stable climates by cycling essential compounds.
Their concept became something of a consensus model, and remains an often-used working definition.
But with the detection now of thousands of exoplanets, as well as a better understanding of potential habitability in our solar system and the workings of atmospheric gases around planets, some scientists argue the model is getting outdated. Not wrong, per se, but perhaps not broad enough to account for the flood of planetary and exoplanetary research and discovery since the early 1990s.
Consider, first our own habitable zone: Two bodies often discussed as potentially habitable are the moons Europa and Enceladus. Both are far from the solar system’s traditional habitable zone, and are heated by gravitational forces from Jupiter and Saturn.
And then there’s the Mars conundrum. The planet, now viewed as unable to support life on the surface, is currently within the range of our sun’s habitable zone. Yet when Mars was likely quite wet and warmer and “habitable” some 3.5 billion years ago — as determined by the Curiosity rover team — it was outside the traditional habitable zone because the sun was less luminous and so Mars would ostensibly be frozen.
Just as the source of heat keeping water on the moons liquid is not the sun, scientists have also proposed that even giant and distant planets with thick atmospheres of molecular hydrogen, a powerful greenhouse gas, could maintain liquid water on their surfaces. Some have suggested that a hydrogen-rich atmosphere could keep a planet ten times further from the sun than Earth warm enough for possible life.
It was Raymond Pierrehumbert at University of Chicago and Eric Gaidos of the University of Hawaii who first proposed this possibility in 2011, but others have taken it further. Perhaps most forcefully has been Sara Seager at MIT, who has argued that the exoplanet community’s definition of a habitable zone needs to be broadened to keep up with new thinking and discoveries. This is what she wrote in an influential 2013 Science paper:
“Planet habitability is planet specific, even with the main imposed criterion that surface liquid water must be present. This is because the huge range of planet diversity in terms of masses, orbits, and star types should extend to planet atmospheres and interiors, based on the stochastic nature of planet formation and subsequent evolution. The diversity of planetary systems extends far beyond planets in our solar system. The habitable zone could exist from about 0.5 AU out to 10 AU (astronomical units, the distance from the sun to the Earth) for a solar-type star, or even beyond, depending on the planet’s interior and atmosphere characteristics. As such, there is no universal habitable zone applicable to all exoplanets.”
Seager even makes room for the many rogue planet floating unconnected to a solar system as possible candidates, with the same kind of warming deep hydrogen covering that Pierrehumbert proposed. Clearly, her goal is to add exoplanets that are far less like Earth to the possible habitable mix.
Meanwhile, scientists have been adding numerous conditions beyond liquid surface water to enable a planet to turn from a dead to a potentially habitable one. Kasting and Whitmore did include some of these conditions in their initial 1993 paper, but the list is growing. A long-term stable climate is considered key, for instance, and that in turn calls for the presence of features akin to plate tectonics, volcanoes, magnetic fields and cycling into the planet interior of carbon, silicates and more. Needless to say, these are not planetary features scientists will be able to identify for a long time to come.
So the disconnect grows between how exoplanet hunters and researchers use the term “habitable zone” and how the public understands its meaning. Scientists describe a myriad of conditions and add that they are “necessary but not sufficient.” Meanwhile, many exoplanet enthusiasts in the public are understandably awaiting a seemingly imminent discovery of extraterrestrial life on one of the many habitable zone planets announced. (In fairness, no Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star has been identified so far.)
Kasting, for one, does not see all this questioning of the necessary qualities of a habitable zone as a problem.
“Push back is what scientists do; we’re brought up to question authority. My initial work is over 20 years old and a lot has been learned since then. Not all things that are written down are correct.”
But in this case, he says, a lot of the conventional habitable zone concept is pretty defensible.
What’s more, it’s practical and useful. While not discounting the possibility of life on exo-moons, on giant planets surrounded by warming molecular hydrogen or other possibilities, he says that the technical challenges to making a telescope that could capture the light necessary to analyze these moons or far-from-their-star planets would be so faint as to be undetectable given today’s (or even tomorrow’s) technology.
With those two exoplanet-focused telescopes (LUVOIR and Hab-Ex) now under formal study for a possible mission in the 2030s, Kasting thinks it’s essential to think inside, rather than outside, the box.
“I think that when the teams sit down and think about the science and technology of those projects, our habitable zone is the only one that make sense. If you design a telescope to capture possible evidence of life as far out as 10 AU, you give up capability to study with the greatest precision planets close in the traditional habitable zone. That doesn’t mean the telescope can’t look for habitable worlds outside the traditional habitable zone, but but don’t design the telescope with that as a high priority. Better to focus on what we know does exist.”
Coming soon: The Habitability Index
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.