Astronomers save up some of their best science for conferences. When all of their friends and colleagues get together it can be a big opportunity to show off and impress the titans of the field. This is why big astronomy meetings generate a lot of science news. This is the third or fourth story I’ve posted about the proceedings at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National meeting this week, and the good science just keeps coming in. Although I had strong opinions about a declaration of potential life on Comet 67P earlier this week, a story from the same meeting, I have a lot more reverence for today’s piece, also about life in a kinda-sorta way.
This news is a step in the right direction for forming Earth-like planets in the galaxy and beyond. Previously, astronomers placed rocky planets into three categories based on the raw materials that are available around their parent star. Dust can be made from Carbon, Magnesium, Oxygen, and Silicon, and subtle differences in their abundances can mean the difference between developing life, or remaining a dead world.
The three categories were Earth-Like minerals, Carbon-rich environments, and those that have a larger abundance of silicon over Magnesium. These concentrations have implications for heating/cooling, plate tectonics, and other geological processes. They determine if you end up with a planet of Earth-like rocks, or a carbon planet made mostly of Graphene.
Using a simulated model of the chemical evolution of the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers took a close look at the resulting dust grains orbiting around star systems. They found that instead of Earth-like rocks being present in one-third of the systems, virtually every single system had the right concentrations for forming Earths, meaning that the potential for Earth like planet formation has just tripled. This of course assumes the simulations stand up to scrutiny.
It’s important to note that even though each star system has the right building blocks for Earth-like planets, we will still see a lot of variation on the actual planets that form. Even so, the likelihood of finding a ‘new Earth’ is substantial. Amazing find!