It is hardly surprising that in this burgeoning exoplanet era of ours, those hitherto unknown planets get most of the attention when it comes to exo-solar systems. What are the planet masses? Their orbits? The chemical makeup of their atmospheres? Their potential capacity to hold liquid surface water and thereby become “habitable.”
Less frequently highlighted in this exoplanet scenario are the host stars around which the planets orbit. We’ve known for a long time, after all, that there are billions and billions of stars out there, and have only known for sure that there are planets for 20 years. So the stars hosting exoplanets have largely played a background role focused on detection: Does the light curve of a star show the tiny dips that tell of a transiting planet? Does a star “wobble” every so slightly due to the gravitational forces or orbiting planets.
Gradually, however, that backseat role for stars in the exoplanet story is starting to change, especially as the key question moves from whether new exoplanets have been found to whether they hold the potential to support life.
And a growing number of scientists — and especially those specializing in stars — argue that central to that latter question are understanding the make-up and dynamics of the host stars.
Vladimir Airapetian, a research heliophysicist and astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has been a leader in this emphasis on the stellar side of the exoplanet story. And now, he has proposed a re-conceiving and re-naming of that area around stars where planets could potentially host liquid water and support life — the so-called “Goldilocks” or habitable zone.
His alternative: the “biogenic zone.”
“Liquid water is undeniably important for possible life on a planet, but it is not sufficient,” he told me. “I believe that equally important is the amount of energy coming from the host star.
“The last twenty years has seen a huge increase in knowledge about our own sun, and the lessons learned are now being used on exoplanet-host star systems. This is essential because without an understanding of the energy arriving at a planet from a star, it’s really impossible to assess its potential to support life.”… Read more