September 25, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

It’s Still a Rare Earth

Now that hundreds of extrasolar planets are known, how do they compare to ours?  The Kepler spacecraft has found a varied assortment of all sizes and distances away from their parent stars.  Only a few reside in their star’s habitable zones.  But that’s only the first of many requirements for life.  Two recent studies indicate that Earth remains a rare bird in the celestial aviary.

Moon requirement:  Earth has a large moon that stabilizes its axis and raises ocean tides.  How rare is that?  PhysOrg reported on a study led by a scientist at University of Zurich who figures that 1 in 12 Earth-like planets has a companion moon.  “Since the Moon might have played an important role in the history of life on Earth, this estimate is important concerning the search for habitable planets.”  The study, however, was a computer simulation, not an actual observation.  It’s not clear how useful such a study can be if “Uncertainties in the study result in a range of 1 in 4 to 1 in 45.”  Even taking their best estimate from their theory-dependent, demolition-derby model, though, it cuts down on life-permitting planets to 8% of Earth-like planets (not all planets).  Not all stars have those, and those that do probably have only one.

Galaxy requirement:  Bulletin!  Life found in Milky Way!  Astrobio.Net reported the finding: “We know for certain that life exists in the Milky Way galaxy: that life is us.”  OK, maybe that is not news, but the article did confirm the idea of a Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ) outside of which life is unlikely.  Author Gemma Lavender reminded readers of other requirements “such as atmospheric composition, a carbon cycle and the existence of water” that must also be satisfied.  Then she briefly revisited the debate between the Copernican Principle (championed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake) and the “Rare Earth” hypothesis, advanced by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, who first proposed the Galactic Habitable Zone in their book Rare Earth.  But how wide is the GHZ? 

Lavender entertained a new model that proposes more habitability in the inner zones than Ward and Brownlee described, despite the increased danger of supernovae, because of higher concentrations of heavy elements there.  A supernova can quickly sterilize a planet, the team led by Michael Gowanlock (NASA Astrobiology Institute) admitted, but life in the fast lane near the galactic nucleus also has benefits—more raw material for rocky planets.  Other astrobiologists are not so sure.  Regardless of who’s right, one item stood out in the study: “The team discovered that at some time in their lives, the majority of stars in our Galaxy will be bathed in the radiation from a nearby supernova, whereas around 30% of stars remain untouched or unsterilized.”  Artwork of an unlucky planet getting sterilized by its star going boom served as a reminder that not every star in a galaxy can be counted on to provide a stable habitable zone.

From these two admittedly optimistic studies alone, it appears that 8% of 30% of stars in the GHZ remain candidates for having Earth-like planets where life can thrive.  That’s 2.4% the stars, before considering all the other factors listed in The Privileged Planet, such as the right crustal composition, plate tectonics, an abundance of water, the right kind of star, the right kind of atmosphere – at least 20 requirements.  In the film, a simple calculation using conservative estimates of 1 in 10 for each factor put the odds at a thousandth of a trillionth that a planet would have all the conditions necessary for life.  Earth still appears the winner of a gigantic cosmic lottery.

It wasn’t long ago that the Saganites were preaching their “theory of mediocrity,” that “we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people” (Cosmos).  None of this news proves that Earth is unique, but it still looks lucky enough to keep the debate between theologians and materialists going, considering that Earth not only permits bacteria, but philosophers — and questioning minds able to see into the farthest reaches of space to discover the workings of the universe.

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  • Rkyway says:

    Re; Saganites;

    There is nothing scientific in terms like mediocre, insignificant, humdrum, lost, forgotten and so on, that Sagan liked to use. He wasn’t basing his rhetoric on empirical observation but on an anti-creation bias.

    The idea the universe must everywhere be the same isn’t science but philosophy; specifically an anti-biblical philosophy. In this view (i.e. the mediocrity principle) we should expect all solar systems to be like our own, and earth to be as common as rock. That this isn’t happening is causing considerable consternation.

    ‘Michael Rowan-Robinson emphasizes the importance of the Copernican principle: “It is evident that in the post-Copernican era of human history, no well-informed and rational person can imagine that the Earth occupies a unique position in the universe.”

    – Since we don’t know to what extent Earth is unique, he can’t possibly know what he claims to know.
    I’m not sure how much he knows about the universe, but he doesn’t seem to know much about the class of well-informed and rational people.

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