Only 8% of the universe’s habitable worlds have formed so far

NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

Only 8% of the universe’s habitable worlds have formed so far

There are likely hundreds of millions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way today, but that’s a small fraction of the number that may form throughout the universe in the future, a new study suggests. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers estimated the rates of past star and planet formation in the universe, which is now about 13.8 billion years old. They then combined that information with data from previous surveys that estimated the amounts of hydrogen and helium left over from the big bang that still haven’t collapsed to form stars. At the time our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, only about 39% of the hydrogen and helium in our galaxy had collapsed into clouds that then evolved into stars, they say. That means that the remaining 61% is available to form future solar systems that may include Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, the researchers report online today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the universe as a whole, the researchers suggest, only 8% of its original starmaking gases was locked up in stars by Earth’s first birthday. The rest will, over the remaining trillions of years of the universe’s lifetime, coalesce into stars whose solar systems will contain a myriad of Earth-like planets (artist’s representations above).

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