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Scientists identify 24 planets potentially better suited for life than Earth
The study identified superhabitable planets outside of our solar system.
- The odds are that if Earth had the right conditions for the development of life, other places probably do, too.
- Scientists have identified two dozen planets that match some items on the list of desirable traits.
- All of these planets are too far away to reach with current tech, but may be valuable research targets.
It's called the "overview effect." You know, the renewed appreciation and protectiveness that astronauts orbiting the globe come to feel looking down on our precious Earth. The sense of profound awe and gratitude that we find ourselves in a place so special among the cold, vast emptiness of space. Now a study from Washington State University (WSU) says there are lots of planets out there better than this one.
The 24 candidates in their habitable zone near K dwarf stars
Credit: Schulze-Makuch, et al./Astrobiology
On the other hand, all that desirable real estate is pretty far away — none of these 24 "superhabitable" planets are less than 100 light years from Earth. They were identified in a study led by geologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch of WSU and Technical University in Berlin, Germany. He was joined in the research by astrophysicists René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and Edward Guinan of Villanova University.
The open-access study is published in the journal Astrobiology.
Ignoring the possibility that other planets might be even more likely to support life than ours is, after all, like someone insisting they live in the best country in the world without having visited any others. The study puts it this way: "Neglecting this possible class of 'superhabitable' planets, however, could be considered anthropocentric and geocentric biases."
In searching for superhabitable planets among the 4,500 known candidates, the scientists were not so much looking for somewhere for us to escape to as they were spotting planets that were most likely to be populated by intelligent life. Their hope is to offer up interesting targets for future investigation by instruments such as the European Space Agency's PLATO space telescope, as well as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and LUVOIR space observatory.
Schulze-Makuch tells WSU Insider:
"With the next space telescopes coming up, we will get more information, so it is important to select some targets. We have to focus on certain planets that have the most promising conditions for complex life. However, we have to be careful to not get stuck looking for a second Earth because there could be planets that might be more suitable for life than ours."
Before one can go searching for superhabitable planets, once must figure out what that word means.
Blame it on the sun
Credit: Tungdil Preston/Unsplash
The scientists first had to work out the type of sun a superhabitable planet would be most likely to orbit. Interestingly, they decided against dwarf type G stars — also known as "dG stars" — similar to our own sun. After all, they write, "Since it took about 3.5 billion years on Earth until complex macroscopic life appeared, and about 4 billion years for technologically advanced life (us), life on many planets orbiting dG stars may simply run out of time."
Another issue is that young dG stars spin 10 times as fast as our mature Sun now does, producing "high levels of magnetic dynamo-driven activity and very intense coronal X-ray and chromospheric FUV emissions, which makes the origin and early evolution of life challenging."
The study settles on planets orbiting type K stars. These stars are a bit cooler than ours and less luminous, but they live a long time, longer than the Sun, from 20 to 70 billion years. This would give their planets more time to get life going.
Planets with a greater mass than ours were deemed desirable for a few reasons, so long as they were not so big as to become gas giants and so on. These planets would have robust, thick atmospheres, slightly higher temperatures for nurturing life, and lots of elbow room: "This would have advantages for the distribution of species and settlements of islands and continents."
The researchers also settled on an environmental checklist for superhabitable planets. Based on the conditions that allowed life to form on Earth, a planet would have to have the following life-supporting conditions as explained in the study:
- Temperatures —"Submarine hydrothermal systems, geothermal hot springs, brine pockets in sea ice at about −30°C, deep continental areas"
- pH — "Acid mine drainage, geothermal sulfurous sites (e.g., Yellowstone) Soda lakes, peridotite-hosted hydrothermal systems (e.g., Lost City vent)"
- Water activity — "Deep-sea brines, soda lakes, evaporate ponds, dry soils and rocks, food with high solute content"
- Lower O2 content — "Anoxic marine or lacustrine sediments, intestinal organs, early Earth environments"
- Pressure — "Deep oceanic trenches such as the 11,100 m deep Marianas Trench, Martian surface conditions (based on laboratory experiments)"
- Radiation — "No natural source of radiation on Earth at levels tolerated by D. radiodurans"
- Chemical extremes — "Submarine hydrothermal vent fluids and sulfides; some high-metal containing lakes"
We have some winners. Sort of.
Of the superhabitable candidates the study detected, none totally meet the researchers' criteria, though one has four of them, meaning it may be more likely to have life on it than Earth did, and it might be a place we could consider quite comfy.
Concludes Schulze-Makuch, "It's sometimes difficult to convey this principle of superhabitable planets because we think we have the best planet. We have a great number of complex and diverse lifeforms, and many that can survive in extreme environments. It is good to have adaptable life, but that doesn't mean that we have the best of everything."
- Habitable exoplanet: Ross 128 b could support life - Big Think ›
- 10 of the strangest exoplanets in the universe - Big Think ›
- An Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of a nearby star ›
- There may be habitable planets all over the galaxy - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.