In Milky Way, 60 billion planets in habitable zone?

U. CHICAGO / NORTHWESTERN (US) — A new study that calculates the influence of cloud behavior on climate doubles the number of potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarfs.

The finding means that in the Milky Way galaxy alone, 60 billion planets may be orbiting red dwarfs, the most common type of star in the universe, in the habitable zone.

Published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the new study is based on rigorous computer simulations of cloud behavior on alien planets. This cloud behavior dramatically expanded the estimated habitable zone of red dwarfs, which are much smaller and fainter than stars like the sun.

Clouds exert a major influence on Earth¹s climate. If clouds only cooled the planet by reflecting solar energy back to space, Earth would completely ice over. But if clouds only warmed the planet by absorbing and re-emitting infrared energy back to the surface, Earth would fry under a runaway greenhouse effect like the one on Venus. (Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA GSFC)


Current data from NASA’s Kepler Mission, a space observatory searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, suggest there is approximately one Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of each red dwarf.

The new study roughly doubles that estimate and also suggests new ways for astronomers to test whether planets orbiting red dwarfs have cloud cover.

“Most of the planets in the Milky Way orbit red dwarfs,” says Nicolas Cowan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics at Northwestern University. “A thermostat that makes such planets more clement means we don’t have to look as far to find a habitable planet.”

The habitable zone refers to the space around a star where orbiting planets can maintain liquid water at their surface. The formula for calculating that zone has remained much the same for decades. But that approach largely neglects clouds, which exert a major climatic influence.

“Clouds cause warming, and they cause cooling on Earth,” says Dorian Abbot, an assistant professor in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. “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.”

A planet orbiting a star like the sun would have to complete an orbit approximately once a year to be far enough away to maintain water on its surface.

“If you’re orbiting around a low-mass or dwarf star, you have to orbit about once a month, once every two months to receive the same amount of sunlight that we receive from the sun,” Cowan says.

Tightly orbiting planets

Planets in such a tight orbit would eventually become tidally locked with their sun. They would always keep the same side facing the sun, as the moon does toward Earth. The new calculations indicate that the star-facing side of the planet would experience vigorous convection and highly reflective clouds at a point that astronomers call the sub-stellar region. At that location the sun always sits directly overhead, at high noon.

The team’s three-dimensional global calculations determined, for the first time, the effect of water clouds on the inner edge of the habitable zone. The simulations are similar to the global climate simulations that scientists use to predict Earth’s climate.

These required several months of processing, running mostly on a cluster of 216 networked computers at the University of Chicago. Previous attempts to simulate the inner edge of exoplanet habitable zones were one-dimensional and mostly neglected clouds, focusing instead on charting how temperature decreases with altitude.

“There’s no way you can do clouds properly in one dimension,” Cowan says. “But in a three-dimensional model, you’re actually simulating the way air moves and the way moisture moves through the entire atmosphere of the planet.”

On the dark side

These new simulations show that if there is any surface water on the planet, water clouds result. The simulations further show that cloud behavior has a significant cooling effect on the inner portion of the habitable zone, enabling planets to sustain water on their surfaces much closer to their sun.

Astronomers observing with the James Webb Telescope will be able to test the validity of these findings by measuring the temperature of the planet at different points in its orbit.

If a tidally locked exoplanet lacks significant cloud cover, astronomers will measure the highest temperatures when the dayside of the exoplanet is facing the telescope, which occurs when the planet is on the far side of its star. Once the planet comes back around to show its dark side to the telescope, temperatures would reach their lowest point.

But if highly reflective clouds dominate the dayside of the exoplanet, they will block a lot of infrared radiation from the surface, says Jun Yang, a postdoctoral scientist in geophysical sciences.

In that situation “you would measure the coldest temperatures when the planet is on the opposite side, and you would measure the warmest temperatures when you are looking at the night side, because there you are actually looking at the surface rather than these high clouds.”

Earth-observing satellites have documented this effect. “If you look at Brazil or Indonesia with an infrared telescope from space, it can look cold, and that’s because you’re seeing the cloud deck,” Cowan says. “The cloud deck is at high altitude, and it’s extremely cold up there.”

If the James Webb Telescope detects this signal from an exoplanet, Abbot notes, “it’s almost definitely from clouds, and it’s a confirmation that you do have surface liquid water.”

Source: University of Chicago