A Moment of Science

The Habitable Zone

Could there be life on other planets? Given how unfathomably large the universe is, there very well could be.

High above Earth's atmosphere

Photo: blueforce4116 (flickr)

For life as we know it to survive, the planet must be within what is called the "habitable zone" which includes factors of orbit, planet size, distance from a sun, etc.

Could there be life on other planets? Given how unfathomably large the universe is, there very well could be.  But then again, life is a tricky thing. So much has to fall into place for the conditions for life as we know it to be possible.

For instance, a planet has to be just the right distance from the star it revolves around. If it’s too close to its star, the heat from the star would cause any water on the planet to boil away. If it’s too far away, the opposite problem occurs: the cold temperature would cause water to freeze. The range of distance from a star that will allow water to remain a liquid is called the habitable zone.

We Earthlings are lucky that we are just the right distance away from the sun.  In 2007, scientists discovered the first two Earth-like planets outside our solar system that appear to be located near or within their star’s habitable zone. Previously discovered planets have had masses more akin to Jupiter’s. The planets orbit the same star and are known as Gliese 581c and Gliese 581d.

So could there be life on these planets? It’s possible, but upon further investigation, it seems that Gliese 581d may be the only one of the two actually in the habitable zone, and its orbit seems to take it in and out of the zone.  Additionally, a lot of factors must come into play for life to exist. Being within the habitable zone is just one of them.

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