How tidal effects improve the habitability of a planet

Circumstellar Habitable Zone
Circumstellar Habitable Zone

Science Daily reports on a new factor that affects planetary habitability: tides. Specifically, tides can affect the surface temperature of a planet, which has to be within a certain range in order to support liquid water – a requirement for life of any conceivable kind.


Tides can render the so-called “habitable zone” around low-mass stars uninhabitable. This is the main result of a recently published study by a team of astronomers led by René Heller of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam.

[…]Until now, the two main drivers thought to determine a planet’s temperature were the distance to the central star and the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. By studying the tides caused by low-mass stars on their potential earth-like companions, Heller and his colleagues have concluded that tidal effects modify the traditional concept of the habitable zone.

Heller deduced this from three different effects. Firstly, tides can cause the axis of a planet`s rotation to become perpendicular to its orbit in just a few million years. In comparison, Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined by 23.5 degrees — an effect which causes our seasons. Owing to this effect, there would be no seasonal variation on such Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of low-mass stars. These planets would have huge temperature differences between their poles, which would be in perpetual deep freeze, and their hot equators which in the long run would evaporate any atmosphere. This temperature difference would cause extreme winds and storms.

The second effect of these tides would be to heat up the exoplanet, similar to the tidal heating of Io, a moon of Jupiter that shows global vulcanism.

Finally, tides can cause the rotational period of the planet (the planet’s “day”) to synchronize with the orbital period (the planet’s “year”). This situation is identical to the Earth-moon setup: the moon only shows Earth one face, the other side being known as “the dark side of the moon.” As a result one half of the exoplanet receives extreme radiation from the star while the other half freezes in eternal darkness.

The habitable zone around low-mass stars is therefore not very comfortable — it may even be uninhabitable.

Here is my previous post on the factors needed for a habitable planet. Now we just have one more. I actually find this article sort of odd, because my understanding of stars was that only high-mass stars could support life at all. This is because if the mass of the planet was too low, the habitable zone wouldbe very close to the star. Being too close to the star causes tidal locking, which means that the planet doesn’t spin on its axis at all, and the same side faces the star. This is a life killer.

This astrophysicist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin explains it better than me.


Higher-mass stars tend to be larger and luminous than their lower-mass counterparts. Therefore, their habitable zones are situated further out. In addition, however, their HZs are much broader. As an illustration,

  • a 0.2 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 0.1 to 0.2 AU
  • a 1.0 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 1 to 2 AU
  • a 40 solar-mass star’s HZ extends from 350 to 600 AU

On these grounds, it would seem that high-mass starts are the best candidates for finding planets within a habitable zone. However, these stars emit most of their radiation in the far ultraviolet (FUV), which can be highly damaging to life, and also contributes to photodissociation and the loss of water. Furthermore, the lifetimes of these stars is so short (around 10 million years) that there is not enough time for life to begin.

Very low mass stars have the longest lifetimes of all, but their HZs are very close in and very narrow. Therefore, the chances of a planet being formed within the HZ are small. Additionally, even if a planet did form within the HZ, it would become tidally locked, so that the same hemisphere always faced the star. Even though liquid water might exist on such a planet, the climactic conditions would probably be too severe to permit life.

In between the high- and low-mass stars lie those like our own Sun, which make up about 15% percent of the stars in the galaxy. These have reasonably-broad HZs, do not suffer from FUV irradiation, and have lifetimes of the order of 10 billion years. Therefore, they are the best candidates for harbouring planets where life might be able to begin.

This guy is just someone I found through a web search. He has a support-the-unions-sticker on his web page, so he’s a liberal crackpot. But he makes my point, anyway, so that’s good enough for me.

Maybe the new discovery is talking about this now, but I already knew about the tides and habitability, because I watched The Privileged Planet DVD. Actually that whole video is online, and the clip that talks about the habitable zone and water is linked in this blog post I wrote before.

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