Why extraterrestrial super-Earths could be more habitable than Earth itself

I’m a professor of astronomy who studies galactic cores, distant galaxies, astrobiology, and exoplanets. I closely follow the search for planets that might host life.

Earth is still the only place in the universe scientists know to be home to life. It would seem logical to focus the search for life on Earth clones – planets with properties close to Earth’s. But research has shown that the best chance astronomers have of finding life on another planet is likely to be on a super-Earth similar to the ones found recently.

Common and easy to find

Most super-Earths orbit cool dwarf stars, which are lower in mass and live much longer than the Sun. There are hundreds of cool dwarf stars for every star like the Sun, and scientists have found super-Earths orbiting 40% of cool dwarfs they have looked at. Using that number, astronomers estimate that there are tens of billions of super-Earths in habitable zones where liquid water can exist in the Milky Way alone. Since all life on Earth uses water, water is thought to be critical for habitability.

Based on current projections, about a third of all exoplanets are super-Earths, making them the most common type of exoplanet in the Milky Way. The nearest is only six light-years away from Earth. You might even say that our solar system is unusual since it does not have a planet with a mass between that of Earth and Neptune.

Another reason super-Earths are ideal targets in the search for life is that they’re much easier to detect and study than Earth-sized planets. There are two methods astronomers use to detect exoplanets. One looks for the gravitational effect of a planet on its parent star and the other looks for brief dimming of a star’s light as the planet passes in front of it. Both of these detection methods are easier with a bigger planet.

Super-Earths are super habitable

Over 300 years ago, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that Earth was the “best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz’s argument was meant to address the question of why evil exists, but modern astrobiologists have explored a similar question by asking what makes a planet hospitable to life. It turns out that Earth is not the best of all possible worlds.

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