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60 Billion Planets May Be Orbiting
Red Dwarf Stars In The Habitable Zone

2 July, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - In the Milky Way galaxy alone, 60 billion planets may be orbiting red dwarf stars in the habitable zone, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

The study, based on computer simulations of cloud behavior on alien planet, dramatically expanded the estimated habitable zone of red dwarfs, which are much smaller and fainter than stars like the sun.

Current data from NASA's Kepler Mission, a space observatory searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, suggest there is approximately one Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of each red dwarf.


Artist's concept:a young, red dwarf star surrounded by three planets. Such stars are dimmer and smaller than yellow stars like our sun. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


"Most of the planets in the Milky Way orbit red dwarfs," said Nicolas Cowan, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics.

"A thermostat that makes such planets more clement means we don't have to look as far to find a habitable planet."

The habitable zone refers to the space around a star where orbiting planets can maintain liquid water at their surface. The formula for calculating that zone has remained much the same for decades. But that approach largely neglects clouds, which exert a major climatic influence.

"Clouds cause warming, and they cause cooling on Earth," said Abbot, an assistant professor in geophysical sciences. "They reflect sunlight to cool things off, and they absorb infrared radiation from the surface to make a greenhouse effect. That's part of what keeps the planet warm enough to sustain life."

A planet orbiting a star like the sun would have to complete an orbit approximately once a year to be far enough away to maintain water on its surface.

"If you're orbiting around a low-mass or dwarf star, you have to orbit about once a month, once every two months to receive the same amount of sunlight that we receive from the sun," Cowan said. The recent study is very important.


An artist places us on the surface of Gliese 876 d, a planet in or near the habitable zone around a red dwarf star. Inga Nielsen, Hamburg OBS., Gate To Nowhere


The team's three-dimensional global calculations determined, for the first time, the effect of water clouds on the inner edge of the habitable zone.

Previous attempts to simulate the inner edge of exoplanet habitable zones were one-dimensional. They mostly neglected clouds, focusing instead on charting how temperature decreases with altitude.

"There's no way you can do clouds properly in one dimension," Cowan said. "But in a three-dimensional model, you're actually simulating the way air moves and the way moisture moves through the entire atmosphere of the planet."

These new simulations show that if there is any surface water on the planet, water clouds result. The simulations further show that cloud behavior has a significant cooling effect on the inner portion of the habitable zone, enabling planets to sustain water on their surfaces much closer to their sun.

The study appears in Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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