Planetary Habitability - Planetary Characteristics - Orbit and Rotation

Orbit and Rotation

As with other criteria, stability is the critical consideration in evaluating the effect of orbital and rotational characteristics on planetary habitability. Orbital eccentricity is the difference between a planet's farthest and closest approach to its parent star divided by the sum of said distances. It is a ratio describing the shape of the elliptical orbit. The greater the eccentricity the greater the temperature fluctuation on a planet's surface. Although they are adaptive, living organisms can stand only so much variation, particularly if the fluctuations overlap both the freezing point and boiling point of the planet's main biotic solvent (e.g., water on Earth). If, for example, Earth's oceans were alternately boiling and freezing solid, it is difficult to imagine life as we know it having evolved. The more complex the organism, the greater the temperature sensitivity. The Earth's orbit is almost wholly circular, with an eccentricity of less than 0.02; other planets in the Solar System (with the exception of Mercury) have eccentricities that are similarly benign.

Data collected on the orbital eccentricities of extrasolar planets has surprised most researchers: 90% have an orbital eccentricity greater than that found within the Solar System, and the average is fully 0.25. This means that the vast majority of planets have highly eccentric orbits and of these, even if their average distance from their star is deemed to be within the HZ, they nonetheless would be spending only a small portion of their time within the zone.

A planet's movement around its rotational axis must also meet certain criteria if life is to have the opportunity to evolve. A first assumption is that the planet should have moderate seasons. If there is little or no axial tilt (or obliquity) relative to the perpendicular of the ecliptic, seasons will not occur and a main stimulant to biospheric dynamism will disappear. The planet would also be colder than it would be with a significant tilt: when the greatest intensity of radiation is always within a few degrees of the equator, warm weather cannot move poleward and a planet's climate becomes dominated by colder polar weather systems.

If a planet is radically tilted, meanwhile, seasons will be extreme and make it more difficult for a biosphere to achieve homeostasis. The axial tilt of the Earth is higher now (in the Quaternary) than it has been in the past, coinciding with reduced polar ice, warmer temperatures and less seasonal variation. Scientists do not know whether this trend will continue indefinitely with further increases in axial tilt (see Snowball Earth).

The exact effects of these changes can only be computer modelled at present, and studies have shown that even extreme tilts of up to 85 degrees do not absolutely preclude life "provided it does not occupy continental surfaces plagued seasonally by the highest temperature." Not only the mean axial tilt, but also its variation over time must be considered. The Earth's tilt varies between 21.5 and 24.5 degrees over 41,000 years. A more drastic variation, or a much shorter periodicity, would induce climatic effects such as variations in seasonal severity.

Other orbital considerations include:

  • The planet should rotate relatively quickly so that the day-night cycle is not overlong. If a day takes years, the temperature differential between the day and night side will be pronounced, and problems similar to those noted with extreme orbital eccentricity will come to the fore.
  • The planet also should rotate quickly enough so that a magnetic dynamo may be started in its iron core to produce a magnetic field.
  • Change in the direction of the axis rotation (precession) should not be pronounced. In itself, precession need not affect habitability as it changes the direction of the tilt, not its degree. However, precession tends to accentuate variations caused by other orbital deviations; see Milankovitch cycles. Precession on Earth occurs over a 26,000-year cycle.

The Earth's Moon appears to play a crucial role in moderating the Earth's climate by stabilising the axial tilt. It has been suggested that a chaotic tilt may be a "deal-breaker" in terms of habitability—i.e. a satellite the size of the Moon is not only helpful but required to produce stability. This position remains controversial.

Read more about this topic:  Planetary Habitability, Planetary Characteristics

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