Status Report

How Rare Is Complex Life in the Milky Way?

By SpaceRef Editor
October 30, 2007
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Astrobiology October 2007, 7(5): 745-756

An integrated Earth system model was applied to calculate the number of habitable Earth-analog planets that are likely to have developed primitive (unicellular) and complex (multicellular) life in extrasolar planetary systems. The model is based on the global carbon cycle mediated by life and driven by increasing stellar luminosity and plate tectonics. We assumed that the hypothetical primitive and complex life forms differed in their temperature limits and CO2 tolerances. Though complex life would be more vulnerable to environmental stress, its presence would amplify weathering processes on a terrestrial planet. The model allowed us to calculate the average number of Earth-analog planets that may harbor such life by using the formation rate of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way as well as the size of a habitable zone that could support primitive and complex life forms. The number of planets predicted to bear complex life was found to be approximately 2 orders of magnitude lower than the number predicted for primitive life forms. Our model predicted a maximum abundance of such planets around 1.8 Ga ago and allowed us to calculate the average distance between potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way. If the model predictions are accurate, the future missions DARWIN (up to a probability of 65%) and TPF (up to 20%) are likely to detect at least one planet with a biosphere composed of complex life.

SpaceRef staff editor.