Some Alien Planets Might be Better for Life than Earth, According to WSU Physicist

OGDEN, Utah – Don’t pack your bags just yet, because the closest possibility is 22 light years away, but according to an article coauthored by a WSU physicist, planets very unlike our own might actually be more habitable — “superinhabitable,” in fact.

WSU associate professor John Armstrong and Rene Heller, an astrophysicist at Canada’s McMaster University, hypothesized in an article recently published in the journal “Astrobiology” that certain planetary characteristics could allow life to evolve more easily than it does on earth.

Student Jonathan Arndt and physics associate professor John Armstrong discuss some of the details of Arndt’s data during Armstrong’s Computational Physics course.

Student Jonathan Arndt and physics associate professor John Armstrong discuss some of the details of Arndt’s data during Armstrong’s Computational Physics course.

“This study started looking at how good a planet is at sustaining life,” Armstrong explained. “For example, Ogden, Utah, and the Amazon are both habitable, but you can make a compelling case that the Amazon is more habitable than the deserts of Utah. The Amazon has more diversity and lushness of life. So we applied the same logic to life on planets.”

The authors coined the term “superinhabitable” and hypothesized that such a planet could be bigger with “more space for living forms,” it might have shallow water more evenly distributed and accessible. The planet might have extended tropical zones for biological variance, and it might be older because, as the article explains, “Earth experienced a steady increase in biodiversity as it aged.”

What that means, said the authors, is that scientists should look beyond “earth-like” planets that are currently in consideration as life supporting.

Their article “Superinhabitable Worlds” has received attention from National Geographic, National Public Radio and social media, where some have said a planet is either inhabitable or not, so superinhabitable is irrelevant.

“I’m thrilled about the debate,” Armstrong said. “A lot of times scientists publish papers that few people actually read, so they don’t get a lot of cross-disciplinary exposure. This paper, for whatever reason, has gotten a lot of people to read it, and they think we’ve really come up with a great idea — or not — but it has provoked interesting conversations.”

Previous to the article, Armstrong and Heller had not met in person, but had worked virtually as scientist for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL). As the VPL website explains, it is “a research group that focuses on answering the scientific question, ‘If we were to find such a planet, how would we use observations and modeling studies to determine if that planet was able to support life, or had life on it?’ 

“To address this question, the VPL has developed a ‘tool kit’ of innovative computer models to simulate and better understand the environments and spectra of extrasolar planets.”

Armstrong and his students are able to participate in the VPL consortium thanks to a generous Weber State donor. In 2008, Armstrong received the H. Raymond Bingham Faculty Collaboration & Research Fund to run the “Search for Earth” project.

“What we were doing at that time was using data from new planets found around other stars to figure out if there could be earth-like planets elsewhere in the galaxy,” Armstrong explained.

That investigation led Armstrong to speculate about non-earth-like planets. Heller was intrigued and suggested collaborating.

Since the Bingham Award, Armstrong and his students have published more than a dozen articles on the Search for Earth topic.

Armstrong knows that at 22 light years away, he’ll never step on either an earth-like or a superinhabitable planet, but he hopes he and his students working with other VPL scientists will create the next best thing.

“We cannot visit these star systems,” Armstrong said. “But with our computer modeling what we will be able to do is predict with a high degree of accuracy what a planet is and then create the model that allows humans to visit virtually.”

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John Armstrong, Physics Associate Professor
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