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Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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A ‘Second Goldilocks’ is Necessary for an Exoplanet to Support Life

Just right

(Photo : NASA) The Goldilocks Zone

A new study in the journal Science Advances suggests having an exoplanet in the habitable or Goldilocks Zone in another solar system isn't sufficient reason to assume this world can support life.

An exoplanet must also have a "Second Goldilocks," which is an internal temperature that's just right.

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Conventional wisdom has it the key factor in determining whether an exoplanet can support life is its distance from its sun. In our solar system, for instance, Venus is too close to the sun and Mars is too far, but Earth is just right. That distance is the Goldilocks Zone.

It was also thought planets were able to self-regulate their internal temperature via mantle convection, or the underground shifting of rocks caused by internal heating and cooling. A planet might start out too cold or too hot, but it would eventually settle into the right temperature.

The new study questions these assumptions.

"If you assemble all kinds of scientific data on how Earth has evolved in the past few billion years and try to make sense out of them, you eventually realize that mantle convection is rather indifferent to the internal temperature," said Jun Korenaga, author of the study and professor of geology and geophysics at Yale.

Korenaga presents a general theoretical framework that explains the degree of self-regulation expected for mantle convection and suggests that self-regulation is unlikely for Earth-like planets.

"The lack of the self-regulating mechanism has enormous implications for planetary habitability," Korenaga said. "Studies on planetary formation suggest that planets like Earth form by multiple giant impacts, and the outcome of this highly random process is known to be very diverse."

The diversity in size and internal temperature won't hamper planetary evolution if there was self-regulating mantle convection, Korenaga said.

"What we take for granted on this planet, such as oceans and continents, would not exist if the internal temperature of Earth had not been in a certain range, and this means that the beginning of Earth's history cannot be too hot or too cold."

Korenaga is a co-investigator of the NASA "Alternative Earths" team, which is organized around the principle of understanding how the Earth has maintained a persistent biosphere through most of its history; how the biosphere manifests in "biosignatures" on a planetary scale and how reconstructing this history can inform the search for life within and beyond the solar system.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute supported the research.

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