Are we looking for aliens in the wrong place?

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The search for extraterrestrial life is fraught with uncertainly. Faced with a seemingly infinite Universe and an assumption that life beyond our planet is an inevitability, we focus on nooks and crannies that have similar habitable environments to Earth and exoplanets that resemble our world orbiting stars that resemble our sun. But finding these special places feels like we’re looking for a very specific needle in a very big haystack. What if our definition of “habitable” is just not all that, well, habitable?

“The Earth just scrapes the inner edge of the solar system’s habitable zone — the area in which temperatures allow Earth-like planets to have liquid surface water,” said René Heller of McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. “So from this perspective, Earth is only marginally habitable. That led us to ask: could there be more hospitable environments for life on terrestrial planets?”

Looking at the history of our planet, it may seem amazing that life was ever able to gain a foothold. Between the asteroid and comet bombardments, intense volcanic activity, frigid ice ages and often poisonous atmospheres, how were the conditions ever ripe for single celled lifeforms to form? Perhaps life was just really lucky to have found its way in such an inhospitable place.

Heller and colleague John Armstrong of Weber State University think that we may be looking for life in all the wrong places and suggest that we should be looking not for “second-Earths” but a class of planet that is superhabitable.

20140207-101407In an article published in Astrobiology in January, the researchers describe some of the characteristics a superhabitable planet may have. Some of the features — such as the necessity for a global magnetic field to protect life from ionizing solar wind particles — sound very familiar. But Heller and Armstrong highlight the need for a more efficient global “thermostat” that would avoid damaging ice ages. Also, a more massive planet with shallower oceans may be a more habitable solution.

In their research, they highlight the nearby star Alpha Centauri B as an ideal candidate that could support a superhabitable world. Slightly smaller than our sun, Alpha Centauri B would be able to incubate hypothetical lifeforms on a superhabitable world for much longer owing to its longer lifespan. “You want to have a host star that can keep a planet in the habitable zone for 7 to 10 billion years,” which would allow enough time for life to evolve and ecosystems to flourish, Heller told New Scientist.

Source. Discovery Science News