Other Suns and Planets May Provide Better Conditions for Life than Our Own

While our sun and Earth have allowed for the development of a relative bounty of life, many astronomers are starting to believe that the conditions they provide aren't unique, or even ideal, suggesting we may not be alone after all.

At this year's meeting of the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, at a panel titled "Solar and Stellar Variability ― impact on Earth and Planets," a multidisciplinary group of experts discussed the evolving research into the types of suns and planets that would be hospitable to the development of life.

Edward Guinan, a professor of astronomy at Villanova University, claims that our sun provided better conditions for the formation of life in its youth. Over four billion years ago, the sun rotated ten times faster than it does today, causing the sun to generate a stronger magnetic field and considerably more radiation than it does today. These conditions have aided the formation of life, but other stars exist that maintain such a rapid rotation for a much longer duration:

The Sun does not seem like the perfect star for a system where life might arise. Although it is hard to argue with the Sun's ‘success' as it so far is the only star known to host a planet with life, our studies indicate that the ideal stars to support planets suitable for life for tens of billions of years may be a smaller slower burning ‘orange dwarf' with a longer lifetime than the Sun ― about 20-40 billion years. These stars, also called K stars, are stable stars with a habitable zone that remains in the same place for tens of billions of years. They are 10 times more numerous than the Sun, and may provide the best potential habitat for life in the long run.

Jean-Mathias Grießmeier of ASTRON's research similarly suggests that the Earth may not be an ideal planet for the formation and development of life. Grießmeier examined planetary magnetic fields, finding that a planet with a stronger magnetic field is less likely to have its atmosphere blown away by cosmic debris and is also better able to shield its surface from cosmic radiation. Guinan suggests that planets larger than Earth might be better able to protect any burgeoning life forms:

On the more speculative side we have also found indications that planets like Earth are also not necessarily the best suited for life to thrive. Planets two to three times more massive than the Earth, with a higher gravity, can retain the atmosphere better. They may have a larger liquid iron core giving a stronger magnetic field that protects against the early onslaught of cosmic rays. Furthermore, a larger planet cools more slowly and maintains its magnetic protection. This kind of planet may be more likely to harbour life.

That K stars are relatively common may offer new hope for the possibility of extraterrestrial life, although astronomers are quick to note they don't fully understand how common or fragile life in the universe may be. But their findings do suggest that, on a cosmological scale, Earth can't support life much longer. Says Guinan:

The Earth's period of habitability is nearly over ― on a cosmological timescale. In a half to one billion years the Sun will start to be too luminous and warm for water to exist in liquid form on Earth, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect in less than 2 billion years.

[Science Daily]