Earth-Like Planets May Be Common

Maybe those Penn State scientists realized how much trouble their football team would have with Notre Dame and were looking for planets where it is easier to compete for the National Championship. Work by scientists at the University of Colorado and Penn State University suggest that Earth-like planets may be more common than suspected:

More than one-third of the giant planet systems recently detected outside Earth’s solar system may harbor Earth-like planets, many covered in deep oceans with potential for life, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and Pennsylvania State University.

The study focuses on a type of planetary system unlike our solar system that contains gas giants known as “Hot Jupiters” orbiting extremely close to their parent stars — even closer than Mercury to our sun, said CU-Boulder researcher Sean Raymond. Such gas giants are believed to have migrated inward toward their parent stars as the planetary systems were forming, disrupting the space environment and triggering the formation of ocean-covered, Earth-like planets in a “habitable zone” conducive to the evolution of life, according to the new study.

“Exotic Earths: Forming Habitable Worlds with Giant Planet Migration” was published in the Sept. 8 issue of Science and authored by Raymond, Avi Mandell of both Penn State and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Steinn Sigurdsson of Penn State.

The study indicates Hot Jupiters push and pull proto-planetary disk material during their journeys, flinging rocky debris outward where it is likely to coalesce into Earth-like planets, said Raymond. At the same time, turbulent forces from the dense surrounding gas slow down the orbits of small, icy bodies in the outer reaches of the disk, causing them to spiral inward and deliver water to the fledgling planets. Such planets may eventually host oceans several miles deep, according to the study.

“These gas giants cause quite a ruckus,” said Raymond of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “We now think there is a new class of ocean-covered, and possibly habitable, planets in solar systems unlike our own.”

Later the article states, “According to the team’s simulations, Hot Earths can form astoundingly fast, in just 100,000 years or so. Earth-like planets in habitable zones form much more slowly, taking up to 200 million years, said Raymond. Geologists believe Earth took about 30 million years to 50 million years to fully form.” That’s even a little bit longer than Joe Paterno’s been coaching at Penn State.

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