What makes a planet livable? Five things scientists look for.

Scientists have so far detected at least 550 planets outside the solar system – and another 2,000-plus await confirmation. But how to pick out the ones that may be Earth-like havens for life? Here's what one team looks for in assessing any planet's potential habitability and its similarity to Earth's properties. 

3. What are the planet's available energy sources?

Light from the host star is one obvious source. Light supports photosynthesis, the process plants use to capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The team estimates that in our solar system, sunlight could support some level of photosynthesis out to at least 10 astronomical units, or 10 times the distance between Earth and the sun.

Heat is another potential energy source and also affects general habitability, even if it is not used directly as an energy source. Depending on a planet's distance from its star (or a moon's distance from its planet), the gravitational tug of war between the two can generate internal heat through friction as a rocky planet flexes.

Tidal flexing of rocky cores is thought to have generated the heat that allowed subsurface seas to form under the ice covering Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. In addition, micro-organisms can draw energy from chemical elements and molecules, from sulfur and iron to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

3 of 5

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story