Press Release

SETI Institute to Ponder Habitability of M Stars

By SpaceRef Editor
June 15, 2005
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SETI Institute to Ponder Habitability of M Stars
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As one of the lead teams in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), the SETI Institute will host the first of a series of workshops on the habitability of M stars from July 18-20, 2005 http://mstars.seti.org. This meeting is open to media representatives, who may attend for free. To register and receive press credentials, contact Jennifer Bugnatto at 650-960-4517 or jbugnatto@seti.org .

“It may well be that there are far more habitable planets orbiting M dwarfs than orbiting all other types of stars combined,” explained Frank Drake, the Director of the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. The possibility of habitable planets around M stars is all the more intriguing given the recent discovery of a planet around Gleise 876, an M star located just 15 light years from Earth.

“This is a timely discovery, emphasizing the importance of the workshop,” explained Peter Backus, an astronomer at the SETI Institute and one of the workshop organizers. “This is the first Earth-type planet discovered orbiting a main sequence star. We’ve been waiting for this one. The discovery of large gas giant planets has been exciting, but nothing compared to this big rock even if it’s too hot for life as we know it!!”

Nearly 40 participants from other NAI lead teams and academia will be attending the SETI Institute workshops to decide whether M stars should be on the list of target stars for SETI observations. According to Jill Tarter, the Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, “Most stars in our galactic neighborhood are M stars; historically we’ve excluded them because planets within their classically defined ‘habitable zone’ would be tidally locked to the star and have to endure periodic flares of hard radiation. This historical wisdom may require revision in light of newer atmospheric models and a new appreciation of extremophiles on Earth. Our list of target stars for SETI may be about to get a lot bigger.” A second workshop will be held 12 to 18 months from now to allow for some substantive investigations on topics to be identified next month.

Results of the workshops will be published for the entire scientific community but will particularly guide the SETI Institute’s search using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The SETI Institute is now designing a system of computers called SonATA (SETI on ATA) that will examine about one million stars for evidence of radio signals from intelligent life.

As scientists have learned more about the existence of life in extreme environments on Earth, the range of possibilities for life elsewhere have expanded. Of particular interest are stars smaller than half the mass of the Sun. These so-called M stars live for much longer than Sun-like stars, thus giving life more opportunity to begin and evolve. The environment on a planet orbiting an M star would be different from the Earth in many ways, but life might still thrive in such an environment.

Contact information:

Karen Randall, Director of Special Projects, SETI Institute

Phone: 650-960-4537 krandall@seti.org

SpaceRef staff editor.