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New findings from NYU Abu Dhabi and JPL about how 'giant' planets impact neighbors' habitability

April 04, 2018



Abu Dhabi, UAE (April 4, 2018) - In a new study published today in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers from New York University Abu Dhabi and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, share new findings about how the presence of "giant" planets (between 10 and 1000 times as large as the Earth) affects potentially habitable neighbors that would be discovered with the next generation of ground-based and space-borne telescopes.

The researchers, led by Research Associate Nikolaos Georgakarakos of the department of physics at NYU Abu Dhabi, report in Giant Planets: Good Neighbors for Habitable Worlds that even after planets have formed with enough water on their surface to potentially support life, "giant" planets can continue to change their orbits and impact their continued habitability in positive or negative ways.

The habitable zone is the region around a star where a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere on a circular orbit can support liquid water on its surface.

Studying 147 extrasolar planetary systems with giant planets (with the parameters of these systems taken from NASA's exoplanet archive), Georgakarakos and colleagues found that, in most cases, the presence of "giant neighbors" would reduce a terrestrial planet's chances to remain habitable, even when the terrestrial planet is on a stable orbit. A stable orbit means that the terrestrial planet is not ejected from the system, or pushed to the outskirts. It is important that the complex gravitational interactions between the star, the terrestrial planet, and its ''giant neighbor'' result in a stable orbit for the Earth-like planet as the development and evolution of life on a planet requires long timescales.

"While in the majority of investigated systems the presence of the gas 'giants' shrank the habitable zone, they still left sufficient room for habitable Earth-like planets to be there," said Georgakarakos. "This is an important insight to inform follow-up investigations. It would not make sense to search for Earth 2.0 in a system where a giant planet stirs the orbit of any neighboring terrestrial planet in the habitable zone so much that its climate collapses."

Added Siegfried Eggl, associate researcher at JPL: "Perhaps most surprisingly, our findings suggest that, under certain conditions, the presence of a giant planet can actually increase the size of the habitable zone, which is the area where your terrestrial planet receives the right amount of light in order to support liquid water on its surface. This is quite remarkable since the continuous gravitational pull of giant planets on their terrestrial neighbors mostly spells trouble for habitability."

By providing specific constraints on when precisely giant planets become "bad neighbors," Georgakarakos, Eggl, and Ian Dobbs-Dixon, NYUAD assistant professor of physics, were able to identify prime targets in the ongoing search for a "second Earth." "The general idea is the farther away the giant planet is from the habitable zone, the better. For planets that are similar to our Earth that is actually true. What we showed, however, is that this may not necessarily be the case for Earth-like planets with a climate less sensitive to changes in the incoming radiation," Georgakarakos said.

About NYU Abu Dhabi


NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity's shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi's high-achieving students have come from 115 nations and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.

About JPL


JPL is a federally funded research and development center managed for NASA by Caltech. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a unique national research facility that carries out robotic space and Earth science missions. JPL helped open the Space Age by developing America's first Earth-orbiting science satellite, creating the first successful interplanetary spacecraft, and sending robotic missions to study all the planets in the solar system as well as asteroids, comets and Earth's moon. In addition to its missions, JPL developed and manages NASA's Deep Space Network, a worldwide system of antennas that communicates with interplanetary spacecraft.

Media Contact

Adam Pockriss
Rubenstein (for NYU Abu Dhabi)
apockriss@rubenstein.com
212-843-8286

Calla Cofield
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov
818-393-1821

Rubenstein Associates, Inc.

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