Monday, January 23, 2017

"Goldilocks zone of metallicity" on a galactic scale

What does the night sky look like to a planet in the Galactic Bulge?  Cool Cosmos describes it as,
Stars in the Galactic Center are so concentrated that they typically are only a few light weeks away from each other. In contrast, our local neighborhood of stars are separated from one another by light years. If we found ourselves on a planet near the Galactic Center, our nighttime sky would light up in a blazing display every night, filled with stars as bright as the planet Venus looks to us.[001]
However, would there be a habitable planet from which to see this sight?  Is there such thing as a solar system being too close to the Galaxy's center to support life?

The concept of Habitable Zones around stars has been studied for a couple of decades.  Life similar to ours can only exist on planets that are a certain distance from their sun.  This is due to the amount of energy from the sun that is received by the planet.  Too much energy, the planet is too hot.  Too little energy, the planet is too cold, hence the Goldilocks reference.

There's another type of Habitable Zone at the galactic scale which uses a somewhat different set of criteria.  Solar systems which have planets that can support life must themselves be made from material that has a lot of elements that are heavier than Helium.  In astronomy, elements heavier than Helium are often referred to as metals.  Metal content of a star is called its metallicity.  The danger is that is if a solar system is made from material that is too rich in metallicity, Earth-sized planets may not be able to exist due to the likelihood of much larger (heavier) worlds displacing those Earth-size planets.  Hence, "Goldilock zone of metallicity" is the idea that certain regions of a galaxy may be too metal-rich and other regions may be metal-poor in order to allow for the presence of Earth-like worlds.[002]

It's not just the metals

Metallicity is not the only factor, however.
Early intense star formation toward the inner Galaxy provided the heavy elements necessary for life, but the supernova frequency remained dangerously high there for several billion years.[002]
If a solar system is too close to the galactic core, the intense supernova frequency in a young galaxy might've keep many worlds from supporting life.  This is because they would have experienced numerous blast waves, cosmic rays, gamma rays and x-rays that are fatal to lifeforms.[002]  As the collective of solar systems age and die, they would have contributed to increasing metallicity.  This means, the right conditions for life on Earth-like planets may have never happened near the galactic core.  Stars that are too close to the galactic core never had and never will have the right conditions to support Earth-like worlds with Earth-like life.

Where can solar systems with habitable planets reside within the Milky Way?  According to the study The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way, the inner bulge component, diffuse halo component, and a thick disk component of our Milky Way Galaxy would not likely allow for Earth-size planets to exist within the right timeframe.[002]  So, the Habitable Zone of our Milky Way Galaxy isn't even really based on distance from the galactic core.  It's a somewhat washer-shape region in between all the places that Earth-sized planets cannot exist within solar systems.

Current Habitable Zone of Milky Way 

Given all of these factors, the authors of the study The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way state,
We identified the Galactic habitable zone (GHZ) as an annular region between 7 and 9 kiloparsecs from the Galactic center that widens with time and is composed of stars that formed between 8 and 4 billion years ago.[002]
Galactic layout © Matthew Lorono 2016

Knowing our Milky Way's Habitable Zone helps us in the search for life on other worlds.  We can focus more efforts on this space.  This isn't to say that this is the only space where life can and does reside.  The Galactic Habitable Zone is just our safest bet for finding evidence of life.

Primary reference:
C. H. Lineweaver,Y. Fenner, B. K. Gibson, Science 303:59–62, DOI: 10.1126/science.1092322, The galactic habitable zone and the age distribution of complex life in the Milky Way


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