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This composite image shows an exoplanet (the red spot) orbiting the brown dwarf 2M1207. This is the first exoplanet directly imaged. Image: ESO/Chauvin et al.

Figuring out whether a planet is habitable will take more than just understanding its orbit. According to a new study in the journal Science, scientists will also need to study a world’s atmosphere, magnetic field and even geological composition in order to really know if it’s capable of hosting life.

The big picture: Researchers have been hunting for habitable exoplanets using space and ground-based telescopes for years, but assessing whether a world can support life or not is difficult.

What they are looking for:

  • Considerable time is spent focusing on whether a planet is in its star’s “habitable zone” — an orbit in which liquid water can be sustained on the surface — but that alone can’t predict whether life will exist.
  • “To focus the search for extraterrestrial life, scientists must assess which features of Earth are essential to the development and sustenance of life for billions of years and whether the formation of such planets is common,” the study says.

Details: While understanding an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a good way to start a hunt for life, scientists will also need to learn more about a planet’s composition to see if it’s Earth-like.

  • “The heart of habitability lies in the planetary interior,” the study says.
  • If a world’s core is liquid iron like Earth’s, it could produce a sufficiently strong magnetic field to shield its surface from incoming harmful radiation, protecting water and possible life on its surface.

Even plate tectonics have bearing on habitability because the cycling of a planet’s crust helps control its climate, the study notes.

“By having these different variables, we can say this is the most likely — of all the planets that have been found — this one is the most likely to be habitable or to be most Earth-like,” study co-author Anat Shahar of the Carnegie Institution for Science told Axios.

What’s next: Although scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets so far, very few of them are thought to be potentially habitable. However, as more powerful telescopes come online, researchers should gain a better understanding of what secrets these planets may be hiding.

Go deeper

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The pandemic has upended Thanksgiving and the shopping season that the holiday kicks off, creating a new crop of economic winners and losers.

The big picture: Just as it has exacerbated inequality in every other facet of American life, the coronavirus pandemic is deepening inequities in the business world, with the biggest and most powerful companies rapidly outpacing the smaller players.

Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

The daily rate of new coronavirus infections rose by about 10 percent in the final week before Thanksgiving, continuing a dismal trend that may get even worse in the weeks to come.

Why it matters: Travel and large holiday celebrations are most dangerous in places where the virus is spreading widely — and right now, that includes the entire U.S.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions previously imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds the first significant action by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.