Kepler-62f could be best prospect for harbouring life

30 May 2016

A planet 1,200 light years away known as Kepler-62f could be one of the best prospects for a hospitable planet for life, according to a new study examining the distant Earth-like planet.

Kepler 62-f has sparked interest due to its presence on the outer edges of a planetary system of five planets that orbit a star that is slightly smaller and cooler than our own sun.

First identified in 2013 as part of NASA’s Kepler mission, which has identified planets in the furthest-flung regions of the known universe, the latest data from Kepler-62f suggests it exists within the ‘Goldilocks zone’, meaning it is likely that it is a rocky planet that is also capable of supporting oceans.

‘A strong candidate for a habitable planet’

This means the planet, which is approximately 40pc larger than Earth, would be a strong candidate for harbouring life, in whatever form that may be.

Publishing these findings in Journal Astrobiology, the study’s lead researcher, Aomawa Shields, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA, also theorised as to what the planet’s atmosphere may be like, thereby determining whether it would be strong enough to protect life from lethal solar radiation in the system.

“We found there are multiple atmospheric compositions that allow it to be warm enough to have surface liquid water,” Shields said of her team’s findings. “This makes it a strong candidate for a habitable planet.”

Kepler 62-f

An artist’s conception of Kepler-62f. Image via NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

Like Earth, but not as we know it

Of particular noteworthiness was that, while Earth’s atmosphere contains around 0.04pc carbon dioxide, the distance of Kepler-62f from its own star means it would need to have dramatically more CO2 to be warm enough to maintain liquid water on its surface, and to keep from freezing.

Computer simulations were used to test Kepler-62f in different ways: with it having an atmosphere as thick or 12-times as thick as Earth, wildly varying levels of CO2 or several orbital paths, and in many scenarios it was found to be capable of sustaining life.

If it were to be hospitable throughout the entire year, however, its distance from its star would mean it would need to be drastically different to Earth, with an atmosphere up to five-times thicker that is comprised entirely of CO2.

Turning gaze to nearer exoplanets

Using these same techniques of computer simulations, Shields said, we might be able to determine whether life could exist on exoplanets much closer to home.

“This will help us understand how likely certain planets are to be habitable over a wide range of factors, for which we don’t yet have data from telescopes,” she said.

“And it will allow us to generate a prioritised list of targets to follow up on more closely with the next generation of telescopes that can look for the atmospheric fingerprints of life on another world.”

Distant solar system image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic