With its incredible diversity of life, Earth is unique in our solar system. But how rare is the Earth’s biosphere – the thin layer of our world that harbors life, stretching high in our atmosphere and deep into our oceans – in our Milky Way galaxy? Astronomers are now discovering exoplanets, or worlds orbiting distant stars, by the thousands. They estimate that there are billions of exomondes in our galaxy alone. The galaxy must surely be teeming with life. Where is it? Researchers at the University of Naples in Italy suggest otherwise. Their new study suggests that Earth-like biospheres on potentially habitable exoplanets may be rare.
The researchers published their peer-reviewed results in May in the Monthly notices from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Earth-like oxygen-based biospheres
The study focuses on Earth-like conditions where oxygen-based photosynthesis can occur. As we know from our own world, these conditions can also allow a more complex life to develop. This process is called oxygenated photosynthesis, where plants on Earth convert light and carbon dioxide into oxygen and nutrients. As stated in the document:
Oxygenic photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process in the terrestrial biosphere and probably very common on other habitable terrestrial planets, given the general availability of its chemical ingredients and light as an energy source. It is therefore important to assess the effective possibility of oxygenated photosynthesis on the planets around the stars as a function of their spectral type and of the planet-star separation.
Not enough stellar radiation
But how easily could this happen on other potentially habitable worlds? It all has to do with the amount of stellar radiation – called photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) – the planet receives from its star. If there is too little radiation, it makes photosynthesis much more difficult to start. Paper :
The planet must receive enough stellar radiation for living organisms to efficiently produce nutrients and molecular oxygen. Stars that are only about half the temperature of the sun do not produce enough radiation. Photosynthesis on planets orbiting such stars could still occur, but the growth of the biosphere would be limited.
Colder and hotter stars also have problems
The prospects for vibrant biospheres would darken further for red dwarf stars, which are only about a third of our sun’s heat. In this scenario, there wouldn’t be enough stellar radiation for even photosynthesis to start. According to Giovanni Covone of the University of Naples, lead author of the study:
Since red dwarfs are by far the most common type of star in our galaxy, this result indicates that Earth-like conditions on other planets may be much less common than we hoped.
Stars that are hotter than our sun produce a lot of needed radiation, but don’t live as long as our sun. This therefore limits the time available for life to evolve on all the planets.
Worlds suitable for Earth-like biospheres may be scarce
At present, scientists only know of one potentially habitable exoplanet that is close to receiving enough stellar radiation: Kepler-442b. This planet is approximately double the mass of Earth and is located 1,200 light years away. This is from the known rocky and potentially habitable exoplanets that have been found so far (currently 60). It should be noted, however, that many more rocky worlds like these are expected to be discovered, as technology improves to find them. For the most part, the larger gas giant type planets are still the easiest to detect.
This study places strong constraints on the parameter space for complex life, so it unfortunately seems that the âsweet spotâ for hosting a rich Earth-like biosphere is not that large.
Other types of biospheres
The overall results suggest that planets capable of supporting Earth-like biospheres may be scarce. Of course, this is based on life as we know it, what we know about the evolution of life on Earth and the role of photosynthesis. It is possible, however, that there are alien biospheres that do not look like ours. There may be some who use photosynthesis in a way that is not found on our planet, or who do not use photosynthesis at all.
Conclusion: A new study by researchers at the University of Naples in Italy suggests that highly evolved Earth-like biospheres may be rare on exoplanets. Many stars either do not emit enough energy for life to develop beyond the stage of basic photosynthesis or do not live long enough for life to evolve on planets that might otherwise be suitable.
Source: Efficiency of oxygenated photosynthesis on Earth-like planets in the habitable zone
Via the Royal Astronomical Society