Earth-like planets “may be more common” than we think in the universe

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Earth-like planets are very common, meaning that the universe may be crowded with animals, a new study suggests.

An analysis of the rocks orbiting distant stars found that they markedly resembled those that formed our planet. This means that many “exoplanets” outside our solar system will have tectonic plates that feed the oceans, the key to the evolution of living things.

Professor Edward Young, co-author of the study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), said: “We have just raised the possibility of many rocky planets that resemble Earth, and there are too many rocky planets in the universe.”

Young and his NASA-funded team looked at asteroids orbiting ancient stars or “white dwarfs” in more detail than ever before, and found that their chemical composition was roughly the same as that of Earth’s rocks.

White dwarfs are known as high-density stars, which do not generate nuclear energy as dying stars. They start with a medium-sized star (like our sun) and end their life as a “white dwarf.”

At this point, the star has exhausted most of its hydrogen and stops its nuclear fusion, causing heavy elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to burst into it quickly, which means it cannot be detected by telescopes.

“Learning to structure planets outside our solar system is very difficult,” said co-author Professor Helk Schlicing, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We used the only possible method, a method we devised to determine the geochemistry of rocks outside the solar system.”

The new discovery was based on data from six white dwarfs 200 to 665 light-years from Earth, collected mainly by the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles came up with their theory after chemical tests in the lab on parts of asteroids, and found that oxygen reacted with iron to produce iron oxide, known as metal rust.

This chemical reaction, also known as oxidation, was essentially the starting point of life on Earth.

“If extraterrestrial rocks have a similar amount of oxidation like Earth, it can be concluded that exoplanets contain tectonic plates and similar potentials to magnetic fields such as Earth, which are widely believed to be key components of life,” Professor Schilling said.

The team pointed out that its findings indicate a high probability of the presence of Earth isotopes, and earlier this year, a study by another US team, the possibility of up to 10 billion warm-Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone.

Scientists used algorithms to identify six common elements in rocks – iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, calcium and aluminum – in space rocks and compare them to those on Earth and Mars.

The team said: “Understanding the rocks is critical because they reveal the geochemistry and geophysics of the planet.”

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