Anyone who has an interest in exoplanets probably knows about the various online catalogs that have become available in recent years, such as The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia for example, providing up-to-date information and statistics on the rapidly growing number of worlds being discovered orbiting other stars. So far, these have been listings of all known exoplanets, both candidates and confirmed. But now there is a new catalog published by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (a project of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo), which focuses exclusively on those planets which have been determined to be potentially habitable. The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog is a database which will serve as a key resource for scientists and educators as well as the general public.
As of right now, there are two confirmed planets and fourteen candidates listed, but those numbers are expected to grow over the coming months and years as more candidates are found and more of those candidates are confirmed. There is even a listing of habitable moons, whose existence have been inferred from the data, although none have been observed yet (finding exoplanets is challenging enough, but exomoons even more so!).
According to Abel Méndez, Director of the PHL and principal investigator, “One important outcome of these rankings is the ability to compare exoplanets from best to worst candidates for life.” He adds: “New observations with ground and orbital observatories will discover thousands of exoplanets in the coming years. We expect that the analyses contained in our catalog will help to identify, organize, and compare the life potential of these discoveries.”
The big question of course is whether any habitable planets are actually inhabited, two different things. To help answer that, it will be necessary to further analyze the atmospheres and surfaces of those planets, looking for any indication of possible biosignatures such as oxygen or methane. Kepler can’t do that directly, but subsequent telescopes such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) will be able to, and provide a more accurate assessment of their physical composition, climate, etc.
Not long ago it wasn’t known if there even were any planets orbiting other stars; now we’re finding them by the thousands and soon we’ll be able to distinguish their unique physical characteristics and have a better idea of how many habitable worlds are out there – exciting times.