by Dave Moore
In this essay I’ll be examining the meaning of the word ‘habitable’ when applied to planetary bodies. What do we mean when we talk about a habitable planet or a planet’s habitability? What assumptions do we make? The first part of this essay will look into this and address the implications that come with it. In part two, I’ll focus on human habitability, looking at the mechanisms that could produce a habitable planet for humans and what this would imply.
If you look at the Wikipedia entry on habitable planets, the author implies that “habitability” refers to the ability of a planetary body to sustain life, and this is by far the most frequent use of the term, particularly in the literature of popular science articles.
Europa has sulfate deposits on it, which indicates that its surface is oxidizing. If the hydrothermal vents in the moon’s subsurface ocean are like those on Earth, they would release reducing gases such as H2S, and Methane. A connection between the two would provide an electrochemical differential that life could exploit. So it’s quite plausible that Europa’s ocean could harbor life, and if it does, would this now make it a “habitable” moon? If we find subsurface Methanogens on Mars, does Mars become a habitable planet? Traces of Phosphine in Venusian clouds point to the possibility of life forms there. If that’s so, would Venus now be considered habitable?
Andrew LePage on his website is more careful in defining what a habitable planet is. On his Habitable Planet Reality Check postings, he has the following definition:
…the best we can hope to do at this time is to compare the known properties of extrasolar planets to our current understanding of planetary habitability to determine if an extrasolar planet is “potentially habitable.” And by “habitable,” I mean in an Earth-like sense where the surface conditions allow for the existence of liquid water – one of the presumed prerequisites for the development of life as we know it. While there may be other worlds that might possess environments that could support life, these would not be Earth-like habitable worlds of the sort being considered here.
By Andrew’s definition, a habitable planet is first a body that can give rise to life. He then narrows it by adding that the type of life is “life as we know it,” which is life that needs an aqueous medium to evolve. If life evolved in some other medium, say Ammonia, then this would be life as we don’t know it; and the planet would not be classified as habitable. But this is not the only definitional constraint he makes. The planet must also be Earth-like in a sense that its surface conditions allow for liquid water. Europa would be excluded even if it had life in its oceans as its surface conditions do not allow for liquid water. His definition also implies that the planet must be in the habitable zone as defined by Kopparapu, which is thought to be the zone of insolation that allows for surface water on “Earth-like” planets. Would an ocean world with an ocean full of life fit his definition of habitable? Would a Super-Earth with a deep Hydrogen atmosphere (sometimes called a Hycean world) outside the habitable zone but with both oceans and continents and a temperate surface at moderate temperature be habitable? I do note however that his definition does not include human survivability as a requirement because elsewhere in his post he talks about the factors that have kept Earth habitable over billions of years, and Earth’s atmosphere has only been breathable to humans over the last 500 million years.
I’m not picking on Andrew in particular here; he has put more thought into the matter of defining habitability than most. Why I am using him as an example is to show just how fraught defining habitability can be. It’s a word that is bandied about with a lot of unexamined assumptions.
This may seem picayune, but the study of life on other worlds has very little data to rely on, so hypotheses are made using logical inference and logical deduction. And if your definitions are inexact, sliding in meaning through your logical process, then you are likely to draw invalid conclusions. Also, if the definition of habitable is that of a planet that could have life evolve on it, why include this arbitrary set of exclusions?
The answer becomes obvious from reading articles in the popular press. A habitable planet is not just one that is life-bearing, but a planet in which life gives rise to conditions that may be habitable for humans.
The assumption that life leads to human habitability is strongly ingrained from our historical experience. By the early 19th century, it was known that oxygen was required to survive and plants produced oxygen, hence the idea of life and human habitability became intertwined. Also, our experience of exploring Earth strongly influenced our perception of other planets. We found parts of Earth hot, parts cold, others wet and others dry. Indigenous inhabitants were almost everywhere, and you could always breathe the air. And this mindset was carried over to our imaginings of planets. They would be like Earth, only different.
For instance, H. G. Wells, an author known for applying scientific rigor to his stories, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), postulates a thin but breathable atmosphere on the moon and its native inhabitants. This is despite the lack of atmosphere on the moon being known for over a 100 years prior. Such was our mindset about other planetary bodies. Pulp SF before WWII got away with swash-buckling adventures on pretty much every body in the solar system without the requirement for space suits. Post WWII, until the early sixties, both Venus and Mars were portrayed as having breathable atmospheres, Mars usually as a dying planet as per Bradbury, Venus as a tropical planet as for example in Heinlein’s Between Planets (1951.)
When the first results from Mariner 2 came back in 1962 showing the surface of Venus was hot enough to roast souls, there was considerable resistance in the scientific community to accepting this and much scrambling to come up with alternative explanations. In 1965 Mariner 4 flew by Mars showing us a planet that was a cratered approximation of the moon and erased our last hopes that the new frontiers in our solar system would be anything like the old frontier. Crushed by what our solar system had served up, we turned to the stars.
Our search for life is now two-pronged: the first part being a search for signals from technological civilizations, which we regard as a pretty good indication of life; the second being the search for biomarkers on exosolar planets. We’re searching for biomarkers because, in the near future, characterizing exosolar planets will be by mass, radius and atmospheric spectra. Buoyed by our knowledge of extremophiles, we continue to search the planets and moons of our solar system for signs of life, but now it is in places not remotely habitable by humans. If the parameters for the search for life touch on habitable conditions for humans, they are purely tangential. These two elements once fused together in our romantic past have now become separate.
This divergence has led to a change in goals to the search for life. We look now for the basic principles that govern the emergence of life and under what conditions can life evolve and/or allow for panspermia? This leads to the concept of planetary habitability being secondary. Life, once evolved, in its single-celled form, is tough and adaptable, so it is likely to continue until there’s a really major change in the state of a planet; habitability is a parameter of life’s continuity, not its origins. So when describing planets, terms like life-potential or life-bearing become more pertinent. This latter term is now starting to be used in preference to the description habitable.
If we now look at the other fork, the idea of habitability when applied to humans, we note that the term has been used in a loose sort of way since the 17th century. Even the idea of the habitable zone was first raised in the 19th century, but it was Stephen Dole with his report, Habitable Planets For Man, under the auspices of the Rand Corporation in 1964 that put a modern framework to it by precisely defining what a habitable planet was for humans. The book can be downloaded at the Rand site.
This report has held up well considering it was written at a time (1962) when Mercury’s mass had not been fully established and Venus’s atmosphere and surface temperature were unknown.
Image: PG note: Neither Dave nor I could find a better image of the cover of the original Dole volume than the one above, but Stephen Dole’s Planets for Man was a new version of the more technical Habitable Planets for Man, co-authored by Isaac Asimov and published in 1964. If you happen to have a copy of the earlier volume and could scan the cover at higher resolution, I would appreciate having the image in the Centauri Dreams files.
Dole first defines carefully what he means by habitability (material omitted for brevity):
“For present purposes, we shall enlarge on our definition of a habitable planet (a planet on which large numbers of people could live without needing excessive protection from the natural environment) to mean that the human population must be able to live there without dependence on materials bought from other planets. In other words, a planet that is habitable can supply all of the physical requirements of human beings and provide and environment in which people can live comfortably and enjoyably…”
You’ll note that Dole’s definition contains echoes of the experience of American settlement where initial settlement is exercised with minimal technology and living off the land. There is emphasis on self-sustainment. It’s the sort of place you’d send an ark ship to.
I take a view of habitability as more of a sliding scale on how much technology you need to survive and live comfortably. On some parts of Earth, the level of technology needed to survive is minimal: basic shelter, light clothes and a pair of flip-flops will do the job. Living at the South Pole is a different story. You must have a heated, insulated station to live in, and when you venture outside, you need heavily insulated clothing covering your entire body and goggles to prevent your eyeballs from freezing. Move to Mars and you need to add radiation protection and a pressurized, breathable atmosphere. The more hostile the environment the more technology you need. By stretching the definition, you could say that an O’Neill colony makes space itself habitable.
I contrast my definition to Dole’s to show that even when dealing with what makes a planet “habitable for humans” you can still get a significant variation on what this entails.
Dole does however itemize carefully the specific requirements necessary to meet his definition. They are:
Temperature: The planet must have substantial areas with mean annual temperatures between 32°F and 86°F. This is not only to meet human needs for comfort, but to allow the growing of crops and the raising of animals. Also seasonal temperatures cannot be too extreme.
Surface gravity: up to 1.5 g.
Atmospheric composition and pressure: For humans, the lower limit for Oxygen is a partial pressure of 100 millibars, below which hypoxia sets in. The upper limit is about 400 millibars at which you get Oxygen toxicity, resulting in things like blindness over time. For inert gasses, there is a partial pressure above which narcosis occurs. This is proportional to the molecular weight of the molecule. The most important of these to consider is Nitrogen, which becomes narcotic above a partial pressure of 2.3 bar. For CO2, the upper limit is a partial pressure of 10 millibars, above which acidosis leads to long term health problems and impaired performance. Most other gasses are poisonous at low or very low concentrations.
Image: Original illustration from Dole’s Report. You may notice the lower level of O2 set at 60 mm Hg. This is the blood level minimum not the atmospheric minimum. There is a 42 millibar drop in O2 partial pressure between the atm. and the blood.
Other factors he considered were having enough water for oceans but not enough to drown the planet, sufficient light, wind velocities that aren’t excessive or too much radioactivity, volcanic activity or meteorite in-fall.
Dole then went on to discuss general planetology and how stellar parameters would affect habitability—something we now know in much greater detail–and he finishes up by calculating the likelihood of a habitable planet around the nearest stars in a manner similar to the Drake equation.
You will notice that these requirements listed bear little resemblance to the parameters used when discussing habitability with regard to life. The two have gone their separate ways.
Using Dole’s report as a basis for examining the habitability of a planet, in Part II of this essay, I will note how our current state of knowledge has updated his conclusions. Then I will look at how you could produce a planet habitable for humans and the consequences of those mechanisms.
Wikipedia Planetary Habitability Definition
Andrew LePage: Habitable Planet Reality Check: TOI-700e
Manasvi Lingam, A brief history of the term ‘habitable zone’ in the 19th century, International Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 20, Issue 5, October 2021, pp. 332 – 336.
Stephen Dole, Habitable Planets For Man, The Rand Corporation, R414-R