New NASA research will make it easier to find the planets out there that can support life. Detailed in the The Astrophysical Journal, the new model can simulate atmospheric conditions in a more comprehensive way, taking circulation of the atmosphere and other factors into account.
The search for habitable planets requires detailed modeling. The scope of the universe is simply too vast for scientists to spend time searching planet-by-planet. Instead, they calculate factors that would allow a planet to support liquid water—a requirement to support life as we know it—using simulations. For instance, it has to be just far enough from its parent star that the atmosphere isn't so cold that bodies of water freeze, but not so hot that they evaporate.
When planets are losing their oceans due to evaporation, they enter what's called a "moist greenhouse" state as the water vapor rises into the stratosphere and the hydrogen atoms break apart from the oxygen atoms to escape into space, eventually resulting in the loss of the planet's oceans. The new research details how a star's radiation influences how the atmosphere of an exoplanet circulates and plays a role in creating that moist greenhouse state.
Planets that orbit a low-mass star—the most common kind of star in our galaxy—would have to be closer to that star than the Earth is to the Sun in order to support life, since a low-mass star is cooler and dimmer. The gravity from such a close star would slow down the rotation of the planet, and it might even become locked, with one side perpetually facing the star and one side perpetually facing away. (It would be as if the Eastern Hemisphere were always light and the Western Hemisphere were always dark.)
In turn, the planet would form a thick layer of clouds on the perpetually sunny side. The near-infrared radiation from the star—and cooler stars emit more of this radiation than hotter ones do—interacts with the water vapor in the air and the droplets and ice crystals in the clouds to warm up the air, creating the moist greenhouse state.
The moist greenhouse state could happen even at temperatures as low as those found in the tropical regions of Earth because of that near-infrared radiation interaction, according to the new model, but the study found that in exoplanets close to their stars, the process happens gradually enough that they could remain habitable. This more nuanced model will help guide scientists in their search for habitable planets near low-mass stars.
"As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state," study co-author Anthony Del Genio explained in a NASA press release. "Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet's atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state."