On the Biohabitability of M-dwarf Planets

A. Wandel

Astrophysical Journal 856, 165 Link to Article [DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aaae6e]
The Racah Institute of Physics, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 91904, Israel

The recent detection of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, Trappist-1, and many other nearby M-type stars has led to speculations whether liquid water and life actually exist on these planets. To a large extent, the answer depends on their yet unknown atmospheres, which may, however, be within observational reach in the near future by JWST, ELT, and other planned telescopes. We consider the habitability of planets of M-type stars in the context of their atmospheric properties, heat transport, and irradiation. Instead of the traditional definition of the habitable zone, we define the biohabitable zone, where liquid water and complex organic molecules can survive on at least part of the planetary surface. The atmospheric impact on the temperature is quantified in terms of the heating factor (a combination of greenhouse heating, stellar irradiation, albedo, etc.) and heat redistribution (horizontal energy transport). We investigate the biohabitable domain (where planets can support surface liquid water and organics) in terms of these two factors. Our results suggest that planets orbiting M-type stars may have life-supporting temperatures, at least on part of their surface, for a wide range of atmospheric properties. We apply this analyses to Proxima Cen b and the Trappist-1 system. Finally, we discuss the implications for the search of biosignatures and demonstrate how they may be used to estimate the abundance of photosynthesis and biotic planets.

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