New Drake equation to quantify habitability?

New Drake equation to quantify habitability?
An image showing microbes living in sandstone in Antarctica (credit: C Cockell)

Researchers from the Open University are laying the groundwork for a new equation that could mathematically quantify a habitat's potential for hosting life, in a similar way to how the Drake equation estimates the number of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way.

Dr Axel Hagermann proposed a method to find this 'habitability index' at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany today.

“At present, there is no easy way of directly comparing the suitability of different environments as a habitat for . The classical definition of a habitable environment is one that has the presence of a solvent, for example water, availability of the raw materials for life, clement conditions and some kind of energy source, so we tend to define a place as ‘habitable’ if it falls into the area where these criteria overlap on a Venn diagram. This is fine for specific instances, but it gives us no quantifiable way of comparing exactly how habitable one environment is in comparison with another, which I think is very important,” said Dr Hagermann, who originates from Recklinghausen in Germany.

Dr Hagermann and colleague Prof Charles Cockell have the ambitious aim of developing a single, normalised indicator of habitability, mathematically describing all the variables of each of the four habitability criteria. Initially, they are focusing on describing all the qualities of an energy source that may help or hinder the development of life.

may seem simple to quantify in terms of wavelengths and joules, but there are many things to consider in terms of habitability. For instance, while visible and infrared wavelengths are important for life and processes such as , ultraviolet and X-rays are harmful. If you can imagine a planet with a thin atmosphere that lets through some of this harmful radiation, there must be a certain depth in the soil where the ‘bad’ radiation has been absorbed but the ‘good’ radiation can penetrate. We are looking to be able to define this optimal habitable region in a way that we can say that it is ‘as habitable’ or ‘less habitable’ than a desert in Morocco, for example,” said Dr Hagermann.

The pair presented their initial study and asked for feedback from colleagues at the European Planetary Science Congress. “There may be good reasons why such a habitability index is not going to work and, with so many variables to consider, it is not going to be an easy task to develop. However, this kind of index has the potential to be an invaluable tool as we begin to understand more about the conditions needed for life to evolve and we find more locations in our Solar System and beyond that might be habitable.”

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User comments

Sep 17, 2009
Anybody remember the Star Wars movie where they had the Genesis Project that took an uninhabitable planet and once hitting the planet genesis would create a habitable planet? Good movie.

Sep 18, 2009
isn't that in the movie Space Journey?

Sep 18, 2009
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Sep 18, 2009
Let's hope they do a better job than the "Drake Equation". That was never much more than an ad hoc argument to show that there must at least be some other intelligent life in the universe. It's not an equation so much as, over the years, ideas by several people dignified by placing them in almost-pseudo mathematical terms.

Sep 19, 2009
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Sep 19, 2009
Yes to comment from user "Truth". It reminds one of a quote from Pogo: "Either we are the only intelligent life in the universe or we are not. Either way, it's pretty amazing."

Sep 20, 2009
The drake equation was overly simplistic. Chemistry works the same everywhere in the universe. Life can evolve at the bottom of an ocean anywhere. Human evolution can be cut short for many reasons and is very fragile

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