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Written by Akaash Seemakurty

According to some experts and laypeople alike, the pollution, deforestation, ocean warming, water waste, and war that have overwhelmed our world may soon inflict irreparable damage to the Earth. Although the scientific revolution is booming right now, we are uncertain of what will be left for us on our planet in the next several centuries. This begs the question: “What’s next for us if there is nothing left for us on Earth?”

“What’s next for us if there is nothing left for us on Earth?”

Recently, many astrophysicists have tried to answer that question by searching for habitable planets that are “Earth-like.” Over 4000 unique exoplanets – planets that orbit a star outside our solar system – have been discovered in the Milky Way galaxy, but the majority are not suitable for sustaining human life. However, a breakthrough in this field came in September when geologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch and astronomers Rene´ Heller and Edward Guinan discovered 24 different super habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Fig. 1 | This graph is used to depict exoplanets. The labeled exoplanets are considered habitable. Image via Schulze-Makuch et al./ Astrobiology

What Does it Mean to be “Habitable?”

Since scientists cannot physically survey planets, they have developed two criteria that a planet must meet to be considered potentially “habitable.” 1) The candidate planet must be able to maintain liquid reserves and 2) it must have the right atmospheric pressure for life to exist. To classify a planet, astronomers observe the planet’s surface through high-precision telescopes. It is important to understand that although a planet may meet the water and atmosphere criteria, it may still not be capable of supporting life. The ability to grow food is a major component for being able to sustain life for generations on a new planet, and unfortunately, this capability cannot be tested from Earth. Other than temperature and water, size and mass are also important qualities to be considered. If there is not enough land area on a planet, it is considered too small for life to exist. If its mass is too small or too large, the lack or excessive amount of gravitational pull will affect how life would operate.

Surprisingly, one of the 24 unique exoplanets discovered by Makuch, Heller, and Guinan was considered to be able to sustain life. ‘KOI 5715.01’ (Kepler Star of Interest) is a planet that is orbiting an orange dwarf similar to the Sun. Located almost 3000 light-years away, its climate is similar to Earth’s, suggesting KOI 5715.01 could be a strong candidate for the “habitable” classification. 

Is It Time to Move to KOI 5715.01?

If Earth ever becomes inhabitable, could humans migrate to KOI 5715.01? Although scientists and astronomers can discover superplanets like these for a distance, it seems nearly impossible for humans to physically travel that far. All the exoplanets considered “habitable” are over 100 light-years away. To put that into perspective, one light-year is 9.5 trillion kilometers away. For a regular space shuttle that travels 5 miles a second, it would take “37,200 years to go one light-year.” 

What if KOI 5715.01 were closer to us? The planet is somewhat cooler than Earth because the star that it is orbiting is dimmer. Compared to Earth, the planet is pretty young. It took Earth around 4.5 billion years to evolve and create the dynamic ecosystem that exists today. Assuming it will follow the same path as Earth, KOI 5715.01 still has time to evolve. Since the planet is uninhabited, scientists cannot make a fair assumption of whether life can survive on the planet, but it is our best bet for a “home away from home.”

Ultimately, our prospects for finding another planet we could inhabit are astronomically low. So, we will most likely be out-of-luck if we do not change the way we take care of the planet. Every year, data suggests the Earth experiences a slight increase in average temperature, and as humans, we have to take action: we have to preserve the planet we have.

“…we have to preserve the planet we have.”