Humans have been looking for other inhabitable planets for about as long as we’ve understood what planets actually are. Unfortunately, we’ve largely been looking for other planets that remind us the most of home, and while that kind of makes sense, it eliminates from consideration almost every terrestrial exoplanet we’ve ever found.
However, according to Dr. Ludmilla Carone, Professor Rony Keppens, and Professor Leen Decin of KU Leuven in Belgium, a much wider variety of exoplanets might be inhabitable than previously thought, depending on their “air conditioning system.”
Most exoplanets we’ve discovered orbit small, weak red dwarf stars, which means that they have to be pretty close to their stars in order to support liquid water. Being that close also usually means that they’re tidally locked, meaning that the same part of the planet always faces the sun, resulting in one hemisphere with permanent day and the other with permanent night. Until now, we’ve always assumed that the light side would be to hot and the dark side to cold for human habitation, but Carone et. al. have determined that weather patterns can make a huge difference.
After exhaustive research, they’ve discovered that there are three basic weather pattern types on these kinds of planets, and two of them mean that the planets might be habitable. Essentially, two of these have wind patterns that move air from one side of the planet to the other, cooling the light side and warming the dark side.
The team is involved in the James Webb Telescope mission, planned for 2018, which will replace the aging Hubble Telescope. Their research is important because it gives us new data to look for while searching for new planets. It’ll be a while till we’re ready to actually explore planets in other solar systems, but we can find a wider variety of potential second homes for humanity with this new knowledge, and learn more about the planets we discover regardless of their habitability.