Earth may be even more habitable, scientists say Jupiter’s orbit is the key

The giant planet helped clear the Solar System of asteroid debris and apparently helped stabilize the orbits of the inner planets. Life on Earth is simply good now. However, a new study published in The Astronomical Journal shows that if Jupiter had a slightly different orbit, life could be even better for Earthlings.

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The study, reported by Science Alert, looked at how Jupiter affects Earth’s orbit and axis tilt over time. Both of these things are important factors in our weather and climate.

For example, the Earth has a very circular orbit. In mathematical terms, the shape of an orbit is measured by its eccentricity. At E = 0 the orbit is a perfect circle and the more elliptical the orbit, the E approaching 1. Earth’s orbit has E = 0.017. This means that the Earth is closer to the Sun for a shorter part of the year, while the longer part of the year is at a greater distance. This is because the Earth moves faster in its orbit near the Sun.

NASA animation illustrating a series of orbital eccentricities. Click on the image to view the animation.Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A surprising result

In a recent study, scientists created a model of a simulated Solar System where Jupiter’s orbit had a higher eccentricity, meaning a more elliptical orbit. They thought that a more eccentric Jupiter would make Earth less habitable. But the result surprised them. They found that it actually improved living conditions on the planet.

“If Jupiter’s position remained the same, but only the shape of its orbit changed, it could actually increase the habitability of this planet,” outlined planetary scientist Pam Vervoort of the University of California, Riverside.

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The study was based on the eccentricity of Jupiter’s orbit, the degree to which the orbit is elongated and elliptical. Jupiter currently has only a very slightly elliptical orbit – it is almost circular. It is a massive cosmic body, 2.5 times heavier than the mass of all the other planets of the Solar System combined. If Jupiter’s eccentricity could be tweaked and its orbit lengthened by a bit, it would have a noticeable gravitational effect on the other planets.

Also for Earth, a change in the planet Jupiter would mean an increase in eccentricity. Some parts of the planet would be brought closer to the Sun by this fluctuation for a longer period of time and would heat up. With the increased gravitational effect from Jupiter, the Earth would thus have better insolation, i.e. the direct impact of the sun’s rays on its surface, and an even larger part of the planet would thus find itself in the temperate zone.

“Many are convinced that Earth is some kind of perfect embodiment of a habitable planet and that any change in Jupiter’s orbit, given its massiveness, can only be bad for Earth. We are trying to show that both of these assumptions are wrong,” outlined Vervoort.

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Conversely, if we moved Jupiter closer to the Sun, Earth’s habitability would suffer. The effect would be that our home planet would tilt more sharply on its rotation axis than it currently does. A sharper tilt would freeze large parts of our planet with more extreme seasons. Winter sea ice would expand to an area four times larger than it is now.

Source: Youtube

Why is this important?

The scientists’ conclusions have major implications for the search for potentially habitable worlds in the infinite universe. In 2019, an international team of researchers published a study in which they demonstrated, based on simulations, that a change in Jupiter’s orbit could very quickly cause instability in the entire Solar System. The latest research has shown that the opposite may be true, that a change in Jupiter’s orbit may also benefit the system as a whole.

In the future, this will help scientists narrow down the list of gas giants, similar to Jupiter, that have the potential to improve or, on the contrary, worsen the living conditions of their planetary neighbors. The new study also provides scientists with a new set of parameters by which to evaluate possible conditions for habitability.

An artist's rendering of the planet TOI 700 d, which represents the first Earth-sized habitable zone

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There are countless changing factors in our Solar System alone, and figuring out which ones contribute to the habitability of Earth is extremely complex. The new research could help astronomers understand, simply put, what makes a habitable world habitable. “Our results can be applied to any multiplanet systems we find to assess them for potential habitability,” the researchers suggested.

Although we tend to focus mainly on whether the world is in the habitable zone, this is only the first requirement for a truly hospitable world. Other factors, such as solar radiation, depend on the presence of other planets in the system. In short, there is a gravitational dance between worlds that can make or break a planet’s chances of life.

The search for habitable planets outside the Solar System

Although we currently have no tools to conclusively measure the habitability of exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars outside our Solar System, scientists have assembled a population of worlds that we should take a closer look at based on certain characteristics.

A potentially habitable exoplanet is a planet that is not gaseous and has theoretically suitable conditions for the emergence of extraterrestrial life, even if very primitive. The degree of livability is influenced by a myriad of factors and their interaction.

The first important factor is whether the body is located in the so-called habitable zone (ecosphere), i.e. where exactly the exoplanet is located in relation to its host star. It must not be too close so that the surface water does not evaporate, but at the same time not too far away so that the water freezes on it. The second factor is the size and mass of the planet. Other factors include, for example, the amount of radiation received, the presence of the atmosphere and its composition, etc.

After reviewing the data, it was concluded in 2015 that it was among the three most suitable candidates Kepler-62f, Kepler-186f and Kepler-442b.

Confirmed exoplanets in the habitable zone, assigned to the spectral type of their parent star.Confirmed exoplanets in the habitable zone, assigned to the spectral type of their parent star.Source: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

The article is in Czech

Tags: Earth habitable scientists Jupiters orbit key

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