The traditional definition of a habitable planet is “a world that can maintain stable liquid water on its surface”, but, as astrobiologists have explored for decades, this definition involves a vast flotilla of assumptions and very narrowly focuses our search for Earth-like life.
Even with all its limitations, this definition provides a very useful and practical starting point – at the first order, whether a world can host stable liquid water on its surface depends on the amount of sunlight it receives and whether it has a sufficiently thick (but not too thick) atmosphere.
Having found countless worlds outside our solar solar, astronomers are able to assess whether those worlds satisfy these conditions using observations we can already make, and a few dozen (probably) do.
In his review paper, Robinson discusses the observational and theoretical techniques astronomers can employ in the near future to take the next steps in deciding whether a world really has liquid water. Among the different approaches he describes, one is the most striking is the search for the glint from an alien ocean.
Robinson points out that Galileo was the first person to propose how to look for an ocean on another world. In his controversial Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Worlds Systems, he says that, if the Moon had seas, “the surface of the seas would appear darker, and that of the land brighter”, just as on Earth.
Seas can also appear very bright compared to land, given the right observing geometry: seas exhibit specular reflection – this is the same effect you see looking out a plane’s window when the Sun reflects off the ocean. So looking for the glint provides a way to find large bodies of water on a distant world. Indeed, the first extraterrestrial oceans were found on Saturn’s moon Titan using this method, and one of the sea glints now frequently observed by the Cassini mission is shown in the figure at left.
Of course, we don’t have spacecraft orbiting any extrasolar worlds (yet), so we can’t resolve individual points on their surfaces. But, as discussed by Robinson, as they orbit their host stars, some of those worlds line up the right way that we could see a spike in the total amount of light coming from the planets. Observing such a spike over and over again whenever the planet was in the right geometry would be a strong hint that it had a large body of liquid reflecting sunlight. Given a little more information about planetary conditions, we could confidently infer such a planet had liquid water on its surface.
Amazingly, astronomers have used Earthshine reflected from the Moon to indirectly observe sea glints from the Earth. And so we’ve actually detected oceans on two worlds using distant spacecraft (if you let me call the Moon a “spacecraft”). As Robinson’s review implies, astronomers are probably on the cusp of finding oceans on extrasolar worlds. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to finding life.