Now that we know that there are billions and billions of planets beyond our solar system, and we even know where thousands of confirmed and candidate planets are located, where should we be looking for those planets that could in theory support extraterrestrial life, and might just possibly support it now?
The first order answer is, of course, the habitable zone — that region around a host star that would allow orbiting planets to have liquid water on the surface at least some of the time.
That assertion is by definition a theoretical one — at this point we have no detection of an exoplanet with liquid water orbiting a distant star — and it is actually a rather long-held view.
For instance, this is what William Whewell, the prominent British natural philosopher-scientist-theologian (and Master of Trinity College at Cambridge) wrote in 1853:
“The Earth is really the domestic hearth of this solar system; adjusted between the hot and fiery haze on one side, the cold and watery vapour on the other. This region is fit to be the seat of habitation; and in this region is placed the largest solid globe of our system; and on this globe, by a series of creative operations…has been established, in succession, plants, and animals, and man…The Earth alone has become a World.”
Whewell wrongly limited his analysis to our solar system, but he was pretty much on target regarding the crude basics of a habitable zone. His was followed over the decades by other related theoretical assessments, including in more modern times Steven Dole for the Rand Corporation in 1964 and NASA’s Michael Hart in 1979. All pretty much based on an Earth-centric view of habitable zones throughout the cosmos.
It was this approach, even in its far more sophisticated modern versions, that got some of the scientists at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory thinking three years ago about how they might do better. What they wanted to do was to join the theory of the habitable (or more colloquially, the “Goldilocks zone”) with actual data now coming in from measurements of transiting exoplanets.… Read more