Astronomy and Astrophysics

The energetics of habitability
Tori M. Hoehler, NASA Ames Research Center

The concept of habitability offers a means of interpreting and predicting the distribution and activities of biological populations with respect to a landscape of environmental possibilities. As such, it provides crucial context for the design, targeting, and interpretation of planetary and astronomical exploration missions. The present sense of priority in planetary exploration largely reflects a perception of habitability potential based on the distribution of liquid water within the solar system. Yet water is a binary indicator of habitability (life is possible if water is present and not possible if water is absent) that is specific to a particular biochemical model. Our notion of habitability can be at once refined and broadened by considering life’s universal requirement for energy. By weighing environment-dependent biological energy demands against energy availability within a given system, a quantitative assessment of habitability emerges – one capable of resolving a continuum of biological possibility, from thriving, to struggling, and finally to non-existence. Application of energy balance criteria for assessment of habitability can thus serve to further focus and prioritize astrobiological exploration in our solar system and beyond.

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Astronomy and Astrophysics

Kavli Frontiers of Science Plus

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