When describing exoplanets that are potentially promising candidates for life, scientists often use the terminology of the “habitable zone.” This is a description of planets in orbit where temperatures, as predicted by the distance from the host star, are not too cold for liquid water to exist on a planetary surface and also not to hot for all the water to burn off.
This planetary sweet spot, which not surprisingly Earth inhabits, is also more casually called the “Goldilocks zone” for exoplanets.
While there is certainly value to the habitable zone concept, there has also been scientific pushback to using the potential presence of liquid water as a primary or singular factor in predicting potential habitability.
There are just too many other factors that can play into habitability, some argue, and a focus on a planet’s distance from its host sun (and thus its temperature regime) is too narrow. After all, several of the objects that just might support life in our own solar system are icy moons quite far from any solar system habitable zone.
With these concerns in the background, an interdisciplinary team of astrophysicists and planetary scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz has begun to look at a source of heat in addition to suns and tidal forces that might play a role in making a planet habitable.
This source is the heat generated by the decay of long-lived radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium and potassium, which are found in stars and presumably on and in planets throughout the galaxies in greater or lesser amounts.
Using theory and modeling, they have concluded that the abundance of these radioactive elements in a planetary mantle can indeed give important insights into whether life might emerge there.… Read more