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Exploring the Cosmic Context of Earth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2014

Martin Dominik*
SUPA, University of St Andrews, School of Physics & Astronomy, North Haugh, St Andrews, KY16 9SS, United Kingdom email:
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Studying the amazingly diverse planet zoo provides us with unprecedented opportunities for understanding planet Earth and ultimately ourselves. An assessment of a planet's “habitability” reflects our Earth-centric prejudice and can serve to prioritise targets to actually search for signatures of life similar to ours. The probability for life beyond Earth to exist however remains unknown, and studies on habitability or statistics of planetary systems do not change this. But we can leave speculation behind, and embark on a journey of exploration. A sample of detected cosmic habitats would provide us with insight on the conditions for life to emerge, develop, and sustain, but disentangling the biota fraction from the duration of the biotic era would depend particularly on our knowledge about the dynamics of planetary systems. Apart from the fact that planets usually do not come alone, we also must not forget that the minor bodies in the Solar system vastly outnumber the planets. A focus on just what we might consider “habitable” planets is too narrow to understand their formation and evolution. While uniqueness prevents understanding, we need to investigate the context and embrace diversity. A comprehensive picture of planet populations can only arise by exploiting a variety of different detection techniques, where not only Kepler but also gravitational microlensing can now enter hitherto uncharted territory below the mass or size of the Earth. There is actually no shortage of planets, the Milky Way alone may host hundreds of billions, and so far we have found only about 1000.

Contributed Papers
Copyright © International Astronomical Union 2014 


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