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Exoplanets need right stuff to be habitable

Wrong composition could prevent tectonic activity necessary for life, study suggests

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4:12pm, December 21, 2015
kepler 186f

TECTONIC SHIFTS  Kepler 186f, illustrated, sits the right distance from its sun for liquid water, but scientists don’t know if it has other properties, such as plate tectonics, required for life. Plate tectonics may not be possible on certain exoplanets due to their compositions, new research finds.

SAN FRANCISCO — For some exoplanets, just being in the Goldilocks zone isn’t enough. Planets need to be made up of the right stuff to become a cradle of life, new research suggests.

Planets composed of certain element cocktails can’t host a continual recycling of Earth-like tectonic plates, new simulations of exoplanet interiors indicate. Measuring the compositions of stars could help astronomers narrow the list of potentially habitable planets, said Cayman Unterborn, who presented the work December 18 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

“This is a new way of thinking — astronomers don’t think in geology terms,” said Unterborn, an extrasolar planetary scientist at Ohio State University. Exoplanet hunters currently treat an exoplanet as potentially habitable if it falls the right distance from its sun for water to exist in liquid form.

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