A11: Habitable zone handout and report

Habitable Zones – Student Guide
This in a Nebraska Astronomy Applet Project (NAAP) lab. You will need to
download it following instructions in the module if you haven’t already downloaded it for
other labs.
Please read through the background pages entitled Life, Circumstellar Habitable
Zones, and The Galactic Habitable Zone before working on the exercises using simulations
Circumstellar Zones
Open the Circumstellar Zone Simulator. There are four main panels:
• The top panel simulation displays a visualization of a star and its planets looking
down onto the plane of the solar system. The habitable zone is displayed for the
particular star being simulated. One can click and drag either toward the star or
away from it to change the scale being displayed.
• The General Settings panel provides two options for creating standards of
reference in the top panel.
• The Star and Planets Setting and Properties panel allows one to display our
own star system, several known star systems, or create your own star-planet
combinations in the none-selected mode.
• The Timeline and Simulation Controls allows one to demonstrate the time
evolution of the star system being displayed.
The simulation begins with our Sun being displayed as it was when it formed and
a terrestrial planet at the position of Earth. One can change the planet’s distance from the
Sun either by dragging it or using the planet distance slider.
Note that the appearance of the planet changes depending upon its location. It
appears quite earth-like when inside the circumstellar habitable zone (hereafter CHZ).
However, when it is dragged inside of the CHZ it becomes “desert-like” while outside it
appears “frozen”.
Question 1: Drag the planet to the inner boundary of the CHZ and note this distance from
the Sun. Then drag it to the outer boundary and note this value. Lastly, take the difference
of these two figures to calculate the “width” of the sun’s primordial CHZ.
CHZ Inner Boundary
CHZ Outer Boundary
Width of CHZ
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Question 2: Let’s explore the width of the CHZ for other stars. Complete the table below
for stars with a variety of masses.
CHZ Inner
CHZ Outer
of CHZ
Question 3: Using the table above, what general conclusion can be made regarding the
location of the CHZ for different types of stars?
Question 4: Using the table above, what general conclusion can be made regarding the
width of the CHZ for different types of stars?
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Exploring Other Systems
Begin by selecting the system 51 Pegasi. This was the first planet discovered around
a star using the radial velocity technique. This technique detects systematic shifts in the
wavelengths of absorption lines in the star’s spectra over time due to the motion of the star
around the star-planet center of mass. The planet orbiting 51 Pegasi has a mass of at least
half Jupiter’s mass.
Question 5: Zoom out so that you can compare this planet to those in our solar system (you
can click-hold-drag to change the scale). Is this extrasolar planet like any in our solar
system? In what ways is it similar or different?
Question 6: Select the system HD 93083. Note that planet b is in this star’s CHZ. Now in
fact this planet has a mass of at least 0.37 Jupiter masses. Is this planet a likely candidate
to have life like that on Earth? Why or why not?
Question 7: Note that Jupiter’s moon Europa is covered in water ice. What would Europa
be like if it orbited HD 93083b?
Select the system Gliese 581. This system is notable for
> 1.9 MEarth
which bracket the CHZ. In fact, there are researchers who
> 15.6 MEarth
believe that the CHZ of this star may include one or both of
> 5.4 MEarth
> 7.1 MEarth
having some of the smallest and presumably earth-like
planets yet discovered. Look especially at planets c and d
these planets. (Since there are several assumptions involved
in the determination of the boundary of the CHZ, not all
researchers agree where those limits should be drawn.) This system is the best candidate
yet discovered for an earth-like planet near or in a CHZ.
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The Time Evolution of Circumstellar Habitable Zones
We will now look at the evolution of star systems over time and investigate how that
affects the circumstellar zone. We will focus exclusively on stellar evolution which is well
understood and assume that planets remain in their orbits indefinitely. Many researchers
believe that planets migrate due to gravitational interactions with each other and with
smaller debris, but that is not shown in our simulator.
We will make use of the Time and Simulation Controls panel. This panel consists of a
button and slider to control the passing of time and 3 horizontal strips:

the first strip is a timeline encompassinging the complete lifetime of the star with
time values labeled

the second strip represents the temperature range of the CHZ – the orange bar at
the top indicates the inner boundary and the blue bar at the botom the outer
boundary. A black line is shown in between for times when the planet is within the

The bottom strip also shows the length of time the planet is in the CHZ in dark
blue as well as labeling important events during the lifetime of a star such as when
it leaves the main sequence.
Stars gradually brighten as they get older. They are building up a core of helium ash
and the fusion region becomes slightly larger over time, generating more energy.
Question 8: Return to the none selected mode and configure the simulator for Earth (a 1
star at a distance of 1 AU). Note that immediately after our Sun formed Earth was in the
middle of the CHZ. Drag the timeline cursor forward and note how the CHZ moves
outward as the Sun gets brighter. Stop the time cursor at 4.6 billion years to represent the
present age of our solar system. Based on this simulation, how much longer will Earth be
in the CHZ?
Question 9: What is the total lifetime of the Sun (up to the point when it becomes a white
dwarf and no longer supports fusion)?
Question 10: What happens to Earth at this time in the simulator?
You may have noticed the planet moving outwards towards the end of the star’s life. This
is due to the star losing mass in its final stages.
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We know that life appeared on
Earth early on but complex life did not
appear until several billlion years later.
If life on other planets takes a similar
amount of time to evolve, we would
like to know how long a planet is in its
CHZ to evaluate the likelihood of
complex life being present.
To make this determination,
first set the timeline cursor to time zero,
then drag the planet in the diagram so
that it is just on the outer edge of CHZ.
Then run the simulator until the planet
is no longer in the CHZ. Record the
time when this occurs – this is the total
amount of time the planet spends in the
CHZ. Complete the table for the range
of stellar masses.
Time in CHZ
Question 11: It took approximately 4 billion years for complex life to appear on Earth. In
which of the systems above would that be possible? What can you conclude about a star’s
mass and the likeliood of it harboring complex life.
Tidal Locking
We have learned that large stars are not good candidates for life because they evolve
so quickly. Now let’s take a look at low-mass stars. Reset the simulator and set the initial
star mass to 0.3 M. Drag the planet in to the CHZ.
Question 12: Notice that the planet is shown with a dashed line through its middle. What
has happened is that the planet is so close to its star that is has become tidally locked due
to gravitational interactions. This is analogous to Earth’s moon which always presents the
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same side towards Earth. For a planet orbiting a star, this means one side would get very
hot and the other side would get very cold. (However, a thick atmosphere could
theoretically spread the heat around the planet as happens on Venus. In answering the
following questions, please put aside this possibility.)
Question 13: What would happen to Earth’s water if it were suddenly to become tidally
locked to the Sun? What would this mean for life on Earth?
Question 14: Complete the table below by resetting the simulator, setting the initial star
mass to the value in the table, and positioning the planet in the middle of the CHZ at time
zero. Record whether or not the planet is tidally locked at this time. If tidal locking reduces
the likelihood of life evolving on a planet,
which system in the table is least conducive towards life?
0.3 M
0.5 M
0.8 M
1.0 M
CHZ Summation
We have seen that low-mass stars have very small CHZs very close to the star and
that planets become tidally locked at these small distances. We have seen that high-mass
stars have very short lives – too short for life as we know it to appear.
The combination of these two trains of thought is often referred to as the Goldilocks
hypothesis – that medium-mass stars give the optimal opportunity for complex life to
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