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Hundreds of millions of habitable planets in our Milky Way? The new findings show that it is possible

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A new analysis of data from the now completed Kepler Space Telescope mission shows that up to a third of the planets orbiting red dwarf stars may be habitable. This would mean that there would be hundreds of millions of planets with such potential in the Milky Way alone.

In our galaxy, most stars that exist are so-called red dwarfs – significantly smaller and much less luminous than the Sun. Their surface temperatures are below 4,000 Kelvin. A new analysis of data from the Kepler mission indicates that up to a third of the planets orbiting red dwarf stars could be habitable. For the analysis, astronomers from the University of Florida incorporated data collected by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia probe, which accurately measures the distances and motions of stars, determining the orbits of exoplanets (extrasolar planets). Scientists wanted to determine the so-called eccentricities of a given orbit – this is a quantity characterizing the shape of the orbit. “Distance is indeed a key piece of information that we missed for this analysis,” said lead author Sheila Sagear of the University of Florida. The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Potential conditions for life on planets orbiting red dwarfs

Planets orbiting red dwarfs have very elongated, oval orbits. They would burn up if they got too close to the star, in a process called tidal heating. Tidal heating occurs when gravitational forces compress and relax due to instability in the planetary orbit. This leads to an increase in temperature and, consequently, to water loss. As a consequence, the chances of life development disappear. For planets farther from red dwarfs, a greater distance could protect against tidal heating. In that case, however, the planet might be too cold to support life. So exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs should be close enough to their stars to be warm enough, which puts them at risk of tidal heating. In analyzing data from the Kepler database, University of Florida scientists Sheila Sagear and Sarah Ballard concluded that two-thirds of the planets orbiting red dwarfs may be dealing with excessive heating by their host star. However, in the remaining one-third of the planets in the so-called In the habitable zone (i.e. the “habitable” zone), liquid water could theoretically exist. So there are potential conditions for life there. According to the researchers, the chances of a planet having a stable circular orbit increase when there is another planet orbiting the same star in its vicinity. “I think our results are significant for the next decade of exoplanet research because they direct our attention to this population of stars,” said Sarah Ballard.

Two exoplanets against the background of a red dwarfShutterstock

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Main photo source: Shutterstock

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