September 17, 2009
New Equation To Quantify Planet Habitability?
Researchers from the Open University are laying the groundwork for a new equation that could mathematically quantify a habitat's potential for hosting life, in a similar way to how the Drake equation estimates the number of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way.
Dr Axel Hagermann will be proposing a method to find this "Ëhabitability index' at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany on Thursday September 17.
Dr Hagermann and colleague Prof Charles Cockell have the ambitious aim of developing a single, normalized indicator of habitability, mathematically describing all the variables of each of the four habitability criteria. Initially, they are focusing on describing all the qualities of an energy source that may help or hinder the development of life.
"Electromagnetic radiation may seem simple to quantify in terms of wavelengths and joules, but there are many things to consider in terms of habitability. For instance, while visible and infrared wavelengths are important for life and processes such as photosynthesis, ultraviolet and X-rays are harmful. If you can imagine a planet with a thin atmosphere that lets through some of this harmful radiation, there must be a certain depth in the soil where the "Ëbad' radiation has been absorbed but the "Ëgood' radiation can penetrate. We are looking to be able to define this optimal habitable region in a way that we can say that it is "Ëas habitable' or "Ëless habitable' than a desert in Morocco, for example," said Dr Hagermann.
The pair will be presenting their initial study and asking for feedback from colleagues at the European Planetary Science Congress.
"There may be good reasons why such a habitability index is not going to work and, with so many variables to consider, it is not going to be an easy task to develop. However, this kind of index has the potential to be an invaluable tool as we begin to understand more about the conditions needed for life to evolve and we find more locations in our Solar System and beyond that might be habitable," said Dr Hagermann.
Image Caption: An image showing microbes living in sandstone in Antarctica. Credit: C Cockell
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