A one-dimensional climate model is used to estimate the width of the habitable zone (HZ) around our Sun and around other main sequence stars. Our basic premise is that we are dealing with Earth-like planets with CO2/H2O/N2 atmospheres and that habitability requires the presence of liquid water on the planet's surface. The inner edge of the HZ is determined in our model by loss of water via photolysis and hydrogen escape. The outer edge of the HZ is determined by the formation of CO2 clouds, which cool a planet's surface by increasing its albedo and by lowering the convective lapse rate. Conservative estimates for these distances in our own Solar System are 0.95 and 1.37 AU, respectively; the actual width of the present HZ could be much greater. Between these two limits, climate stability is ensured by a feedback mechanism in which atmospheric CO2 concentrations vary inversely with planetary surface temperature. The width of the HZ is slightly greater for planets that are larger than Earth and for planets which have higher N2 partial pressures. The HZ evolves outward in time because the Sun increases in luminosity as it ages. A conservative estimate for the width of the 4.6-Gyr continuously habitable zone (CHZ) is 0.95 to 1.15 AU. Stars later than F0 have main sequence lifetimes exceeding 2 Gyr and, so, are also potential candidates for harboring habitable planets. The HZ around an F star is larger and occurs farther out than for our Sun; the HZ around K and M stars is smaller and occurs farther in. Nevertheless, the widths of all of these HZs are approximately the same if distance is expressed on a logarithmic scale. A log distance scale is probably the appropriate scale for this problem because the planets in our own Solar System are spaced logarithmically and because the distance at which another star would be expected to form planets should be related to the star's mass. The width of the CHZ around other stars depends on the time that a planet is required to remain habitable and on whether a planet that is initially frozen can be thawed by modest increases in stellar luminosity. For a specified period of habitability, CHZs around K and M stars are wider (in log distance) than for our Sun because these stars evolve more slowly. Planets orbiting late K stars and M stars may not be habitable, however, because they can become trapped in synchronous rotation as a consequence of tidal damping. F stars have narrower (log distance) CHZ's than our Sun because they evolve more rapidly. Our results suggest that mid-to-early K stars should be considered along with G stars as optimal candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science