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Earth might be our Solar System’s last habitable planet after all

Published Aug 1st, 2017 8:30PM EDT

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Earth is a fantastic place to be right now, but that won’t always be the case. If humanity doesn’t manage to completely destroy the planet for ourselves before our sun begins to grow noticeably warmer, its intense heat will make our world uninhabitable on its own. Scientists have long theorized that when the sun grows hot enough to cause serious problems for Earth, some of the icy moons in our Solar System might warm up enough to support life. Unfortunately, new research is casting some serious doubt on that idea, and suggests that finding a new place to live after Earth might force us to venture much farther.

The new research effort, led by Jun Yang of Peking University, was published in Nature Geoscience. Utilized computer models to simulate how a star like our own sun would affect icy planets as it warms. Rather than melting the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus into oceans which could support the development of life, the simulations point to a much different result.

The data shows that the amount of energy that a world such as Europa would need in order to begin the melting process would be so great that, once the melting began, the moon would likely already be at the tipping point of “too hot.” Essentially, the heat required to break it out of its “snowball” state would also create a devastating greenhouse effect and water loss, skipping a habitable window entirely.

“Europa and Enceladus will have no habitable period,” Yang and his colleagues predict. “They will transit to a moist or runaway greenhouse state when the Sun becomes a red giant in six to seven billion years, at which time the stellar flux at the location of Europa will reach the snowball-melting threshold.”