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Scientists estimate that 60 billion alien worlds could support life

Image credit: Lynette Cook

A new estimate suggests that 60 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone may support life.

It was only recently that scientists used data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope to conclude that one Earth-size planet is likely in the habitable zone of each red dwarf star (which happens to be the most common type of star). But as Space.com explains, “a group of researchers has now doubled that estimate after considering how cloud cover might help an alien planet support life.”

So what does cloud cover have to do with potential habitability? Dorian Abbot, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, and member of the research team, explains, “Clouds cause warming, and they cause cooling on Earth . . . They reflect sunlight to cool things off, and they absorb infrared radiation from the surface to make a greenhouse effect. That’s part of what keeps the planet warm enough to sustain life.”

Red dwarfs are dimmer and cooler than our yellow dwarf sun, which makes the habitable zone of red dwarf systems much closer to the star than it is in our solar system. Because of their tighter orbit, these habitable planets around red dwarfs would apparently become tidally locked–the same side of the planet would always face its star.

Simulated cloud coverage on a tidally locked planet. (Credit: Jun Yang)
Simulated cloud coverage on a tidally locked planet. (Credit: Jun Yang)

According to Space.com, researchers modeled air and moisture movements over tidally locked planets using 3D simulations. And based on these simulations, “The team found that any surface water would result in water clouds. What’s more, highly reflective clouds would build at the point of the star-facing side where it’s always high noon. This would have a cooling effect in the inner ring of the habitable zone, meaning the planets there would be able to sustain water on their surfaces much closer to their star.”

The research conducted by this team of scientists from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University was published on June 27 in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Jason McClellan

Jason McClellan is a UFO journalist and the producer/co-host of the web series Spacing Out! He is also the web content manager and staff writer for OpenMinds.tv, and a co-organizer and technical producer of the International UFO Congress. As a founding member of Open Minds, Jason served as a writer and editor for the now defunct Open Minds magazine. He has appeared on Syfy, NatGeo, and, most recently, he co-starred on H2's Hangar 1: The UFO Files. ------ Follow Jason on Twitter @acecentric and subscribe to Jason's updates on Facebook.

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  1. The main issue isn’t the number of planets there are out there that can potentially support life, but the huge distance with these planets. If you don’t know it, I suggest you take a look at The Scale of Universe http://adf.ly/RV7JK

  2. Focusing on planets around M-class dwarf stars, Jun Yang and Dorian Abbot (both of the University of Chicago) and Nicholas Cowan (Northwestern University) are quick to note that red dwarfs like these constitute perhaps 75 percent of all main sequence stars. Current data (based on the work of Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau) suggest that there is an abundance of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone — one per star — around M-dwarfs. The close orbits and deep transit depth of planets in the habitable zone here make them relatively easy to detect.

  3. Many red dwarfs are orbited by extrasolar planets but large Jupiter -sized planets are comparatively rare. Doppler surveys around a wide variety of stars indicate about 1 in 6 stars having twice the mass of the Sun are orbited by one or more Jupiter-sized planets, vs. 1 in 16 for Sun-like stars and only 1 in 50 for class M red dwarfs. On the other hand, microlensing surveys indicate that long-period Neptune -mass planets are found around 1 in 3 M dwarfs.

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