New Innovative System Evaluates the Habitability of Distant Planets

Exoplanet With Rings

The authors’ findings will make it possible for scientists to evaluate the atmospheres of many other planets efficiently without having to send a space crew to physically visit them.

A computerized system categorizes planet atmospheres and determines which are viable for future settlement by humans.

The climate crisis poses a significant challenge to all humans on Earth. Many scientists have been inspired by it to search for exoplanets—planets outside of our solar system where humans could one day settle. As part of this quest, the James Webb Space Telescope was built to provide detailed observational data regarding Earth-like exoplanets in the coming years.

In a recent project, Dr. Assaf Hochman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s (HU) Fredy & Nadine Herrmann Institute of Earth Sciences, along with Drs. Thaddeus D. Komacek of the University of Maryland and Paolo De Luca of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, successfully developed a framework to study the atmospheres of far-off planets and find the planets suitable for human habitation without having to physically visit them. Their findings were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

A key component of determining whether exoplanets are suitable for human life is classifying climate conditions and measuring climate sensitivity. The latest study focused on TRAPPIST-1e, a planet that will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope next year and is situated around 40 light years from Earth. The researchers looked at the sensitivity of the planet’s climate to increases in greenhouse gases and compared it with conditions on Earth. Using a computerized simulation of the climate on TRAPPIST-1e, they could assess the impact of changes in greenhouse gas concentration.

The study focused on the effect of an increase in carbon dioxide on extreme weather conditions, and on the rate of changes in weather on the planet. “These two variables are crucial for the existence of life on other planets, and they are now being studied in depth for the first time in history,” explained Hochman.

According to the research team, studying the climate variability of earth-like exo-planets provides a better understanding of the climate changes we are currently experiencing on Earth. Additionally, this kind of research offers a new understanding of how planet Earth’s atmosphere might change in the future.

Hochman and his research partners found that planet TRAPPIST-1e has a significantly more sensitive atmosphere than planet Earth. They estimate that an increase in greenhouse gases there could lead to more extreme climate changes than we would experience here on Earth because one side of TRAPPIST-1e constantly faces its own sun, in the same way, that our moon always has one side facing the Earth.

As Hochman concluded, “the research framework we developed, along with observational data from the Webb Space Telescope, will enable scientists to efficiently assess the atmospheres of many other planets without having to send a space crew to visit them physically. This will help us make informed decisions in the future about which planets are good candidates for human settlement and perhaps even to find life on those planets.”

Reference: “Greater Climate Sensitivity and Variability on TRAPPIST-1e than Earth” by Assaf Hochman, Paolo De Luca and Thaddeus D. Komacek, 19 October 2022, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac866f

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