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Scientists should take the conservative approach when searching for habitable zones where life-sustaining planets might exist, according to James Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State, including when building Terrestrial Planet Finders.

That conservative approach means looking for planets that have liquid water and solid or liquid surfaces, as opposed to gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn. The habitable zone in a solar system is the area where liquid water, and by extension life, could exist. Defining the habitable zone is key to the search for life sustaining planets in part because the idea of a habitable zone is used in designing the space-based telescopes that scientists would use to find planets where metabolism -- and potentially life -- life might exist.

"It’s one of the biggest and oldest questions that science has tried to investigate: is there life off the Earth?" Kasting said. "NASA is pursuing the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System, but some of us think that looking for life on planets around other stars may actually be the best way to answer this question."

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