Tides and the evolution of planetary habitability

Rory Barnes, Sean N. Raymond, Brian Jackson, Richard Greenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Tides raised on a planet by the gravity of its host star can reduce the planet's orbital semi-major axis and eccentricity. This effect is only relevant for planets orbiting very close to their host stars. The habitable zones of low-mass stars are also close in, and tides can alter the orbits of planets in these locations. We calculate the tidal evolution of hypothetical terrestrial planets around low-mass stars and show that tides can evolve planets past the inner edge of the habitable zone, sometimes in less than 1 billion years. This migration requires large eccentricities (>0.5) and low-mass stars (≲0.35 M). Such migration may have important implications for the evolution of the atmosphere, internal heating, and the Gaia hypothesis. Similarly, a planet that is detected interior to the habitable zone could have been habitable in the past. We consider the past habitability of the recently discovered, ∼5 M planet, Gliese 581 c. We find that it could have been habitable for reasonable choices of orbital and physical properties as recently as 2 Gyr ago. However, when constraints derived from the additional companions are included, most parameter choices that indicate past habitability require the two inner planets of the system to have crossed their mutual 3:1 mean motion resonance. As this crossing would likely have resulted in resonance capture, which is not observed, we conclude that Gl 581 c was probably never habitable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)557-568
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2008


  • Extrasolar terrestrial planets
  • Gl 581
  • Habitable zones
  • M stars

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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