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Alien planets get pigeonholed

ThisPlanetary Habitability Lab / UPR

Researchers have set up an online "periodic table" for extrasolar planets ranging from Hot Mercurians to Cold Jovians, with Earthlike worlds right in the middle. 

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, drawn up by the University of Puerto Rico's Planetary Habitability Laboratory, is aimed at pigeonholing the hundreds of worlds that are being identified by NASA's Kepler space telescope and other planet-hunting projects. Eventually, the tally of exoplanets is expected to mount into the thousands, and that's where researchers hope the proposed catalog will come in handy.

"One important outcome of these rankings is the ability to compare exoplanets from best to worst candidates for life," Abel Mendez, the laboratory's director and principal investigator for the project, said today in a news release.

Also today, Kepler's scientists said they've confirmed the existence of their first exoplanet solidly within the habitable zone of its solar system, where water could exist in liquid form at a pleasant 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius). That certainly sounds livable, but Mendez told me that the planet, known as Kepler-22b, doesn't quite fit into the sweet spot for habitability because it's closer in size to Neptune than to Earth.

"I confirmed its radius, and Kepler-22b is a low-end Warm Neptunian, very close to a Superterran," Mendez said in a Twitter back-and-forth from NASA's Ames Research Center in California, where he was presenting his research at the Kepler Science Conference.

Neptunians are likely to have a gaseous rather than a rocky composition, which might make it tough for life as we know it on Kepler-22b. However, the situation might be more hospitable on a moon orbiting the planet, just as it is in the movie "Avatar" for the inhabitants of Pandora, a fictional moon orbiting the gas giant Prometheus.

How the catalog was created

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog sets up a matrix of 18 pigeonholes based on temperature and mass: Planets in the Hot Zone would be too close to their parent suns for water to exist in liquid form. Water would exist only as ice in the Cold Zone, but could take liquid form in the Warm Zone. The catalog sets up six categories of planetary mass: Mercurians (think Mercury), Subterrans (Mars-size), Terrans (Earth-size), Superterrans (up to 10 times as massive as Earth), Neptunians (Neptune-size) and Jovians (Jupiter-size).

To figure out which planets fit which categories, the catalog draws upon a variety of resources, including the Kepler database of candidates, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the Exoplanet Data Explorer, the Earth Similarity Index, the Habitable Zones Distance metric and the Global Primary Habitability index.

The initial classification of more than 1,600 confirmed planets and yet-to-be-confirmed candidates puts only 16 potential worlds in the habitable categories — that is, Warm Subterrans, Warm Terrans and Warm Superterrans. But that list will grow: The Kepler team announced today that its tally of candidates has risen to 2,326, based on the first 16 months of the space telescope's mission. Forty-eight of those candidates are said to lie in their stars' habitable zones.

"The tremendous growth in the number of Earth-size candidates tells us that we're honing in on the planets Kepler was designed to detect: those that are not only Earth-size, but also are potentially habitable," Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at San Jose State University, said in a NASA news release. "The more data we collect, the keener our eye for finding the smallest planets out at longer orbital periods."

Mendez and his colleagues are working on software to keep the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog updated. "The computers are doing the job," he told me. "I am trying to automate everything, but it takes time."

Right now, the world in the database that's judged most similar to Earth is a candidate known as KOI 736.01, which is 1,750 light-years away and is estimated to have a surface temperature of 55 degrees F (286 Kelvin). But the top prospect for surface habitability is KOI 255.01, a Warm Superterran that's 1,169 light-years away with a surface temperature of 86 degrees F (303 K). Some researchers believe super-Earths can be even more conducive to life than Earth.

Gliese 581d, a world that orbits a red dwarf just 20 light-years from Earth, shows up among the Sweet 16 on both lists.

The search revs up

So what's next? "I hope this database will help increase interest in building a big space-based telescope to observe exoplanets directly and look for possible signatures of life," Jim Kasting, a planetary scientist from Penn State, said in the Planetary Habitability Laboratory's news release.

A habitability index could help scientists set the priorities for future observations, but they don't necessarily need to wait until a new super-space telescope is launched. During the Kepler conference, the California-based SETI Institute announced that it was once again searching planetary systems for radio signals that could serve as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Some of Kepler's planetary candidates are among its first targets.

"For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars and know that those stars actually host planetary systems — including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star," Jill Tarter, director of the institute's Center for SETI Research, said in a news release. "That's the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters."

Tarter and her colleagues makes use of the Allen Telescope Array, a network of radio antennas in northern California that had to be put into hibernation due to money troubles. The SETI Institute was able to restart work at the array thanks to contributions made by the public through the website, as well as funding from the U.S. Air Force to assess the array's utility for space situational awareness (that is, monitoring the skies for hazardous asteroids and space debris).

Tarter said the highest priority would be given to Kepler planets that are located within their stars' habitable zones. But the search for extraterrestrial intelligence won't stop there.

"In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery," she said. "So, with sufficient future funding from our donores, it's our intention to examile all of the planetary systems found by Kepler."

More about the planet quest:

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