Researchers from George Mason University say that they found a new method of detecting potentially habitable exoplanets by analyzing their shape. Exoplanets are planets located in a different solar system, orbiting a Sun-like star, coming in different shapes and colors – from dark brownish rocky Mercury-size objects to light bluish gas giants several times larger than Jupiter.
Exoplanet hunters, both professional and amateur, find a great interest in these planets because many of them, they think, may hold water and thus harbor life. Early this year NASA reported that Kepler Space Telescope found about 700 newly verified exoplanets orbiting around 300 stars using a new technique that allowed the telescope detect exoplanets smaller than Jupiter-size gas giants.
The new method develops the NASA’s technique and employs it on red dwarfs, the ancient stars with the greatest potential for sheltering alien life in their planetary systems.
Astronomers often hunt the exoplanets located in a red dwarf’s habitable zone. The habitable zone or Goldilocks zone is a life-friendly cosmic area situated neither too far nor too close to a host star that due to milder temperatures allows orbiting planets to have potential for life.
Red dwarfs give their orbiting planets the greatest potential for harboring life since their habitable zones are more compact due to their intense gravitational fields. Because they are so compact, astronomers believe that habitable planets would orbit them closer and faster allowing Earth-based telescopes to detect easier transit events such as an exoplanet’s passing in front of its host star.
Another reason researchers believe that red-dwarf planetary systems have such a huge potential for sheltering life is their age. Red dwarfs are very old stars at an intermediate stage before they could be called dying stars. And since they are so old, the worlds that they host might have had enough time to shelter intelligent life.
However, red dwarfs have also drawbacks – they often send towards neighboring planets stellar flares that could burn them instantly and their habitable zone is so compact that any planet orbiting such stars would be tidally locked to them. This means that the planet will be permanently facing the star having no day-night cycle. Another tidal locking “side effect” would be the planet getting an egg-like shape.
“Imagine taking a planet like the Earth or Mars, placing it near a cool red star and stretching it out. Analyzing the new shape alone will tell us a lot about the otherwise impossible to see internal structure of the planet and how it changes over time,”
Prabal Saxena, lead researcher of the study said.
The scientists from George Mason University published their findings in “Monthly Notices”, a journal founded by the Royal Astronomical Society.
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