The search for a life is the ultimate quest. The search for life is the search for a life bearing planet, which means it is the search for a planet like our own, the Earth. So we’ve focused on the essentials, looking for small rocky planets, with a mixture of atmospheric gases, with a nice atmospheric pressure so we can support liquid water, at the Goldilocks zone of the perfect temperature. But this search had assumed that Earth is the perfect life- bearing planet. New research might just flip this reasoning on its head.
So-called superhabitable worlds wouldn’t necessarily look like Earth but would nonetheless have conditions that are more suitable for life to emerge and evolve, according to the study published this month in the journal Astrobiology.
“In my point of view, astronomers and biologists are biased,” says Rene Heller, an astrophysicist at Canada’s McMaster University who is the study’s lead author. “These scientists look for planets that are Earth-like.”
But it’s possible that Earth is actually only marginally habitable by the standards of the universe, says Heller, who points out that our home may not represent a typical habitable world.
He and co-author John Armstrong of Weber State University in Utah have come up with a long list of traits that might make a planet “superhabitable.”
Such planets would most likely be older than Earth and two to three times bigger, the researchers say. And they would orbit stars that are somewhat less massive than our sun.
Any liquid water wouldn’t be in a giant, deep ocean, but would be scattered over the surface of the planets in shallow reservoirs. The planets would need a global magnetic field to serve as protection from cosmic radiation, and they would probably have thicker atmospheres than the Earth does.
“It’s good to start thinking now about how do we sort of rank these planets in terms of their potential to host life,” agrees Rory Barnes of the University of Washington, who uses computer models to explore the habitability of planets outside our solar system. “I think this paper does a really good job of examining the different kinds of features that all come into play when making a habitable planet.”
So far, scientists have detected about a thousand planets orbiting other stars. Current technology usually can’t reveal much about them — just a planet’s size, density and how far it orbits from its host star.