Diana Valencia on extraterrestrial plate tectonics

In 2007, astronomers discovered Gliese 581c, a planet whose radius is 50% larger than that of our Earth. Using computers to investigate the properties of distant worlds like this one, these scientists believe that plate tectonics – shifting land plates – might be possible. That’s significant because plate tectonics on Earth drive a key mechanism for earthly life.

In 2007, scientists investigated the possibility of shifting land plates on ‘super-Earths,’ worlds between one and ten times Earth’s mass, orbiting distant suns.

Scientists discovered a possibly habitable super-Earth in 2007. And after that, they’ve stepped up their use of computers to investigate the properties of these distant worlds. Now they’re suggesting that plate tectonics might be possible.

EarthSky spoke with Diana Valencia, a planetary scientist at Harvard, and author of a 2007 study on super-Earths. She emphasized that internal heat is the driving force for plate tectonics. Her research showed that the forces of convection would be even stronger on more massive planets, so land plates would be more likely to move.

The argument is significant because plate tectonics on Earth drives volcanic activity, which in turn releases carbon into the atmosphere. This is thought to have created the carbon cycle, a key mechanism for Earthly life. So this work might be more evidence for the possibility of life on other planets. But scientists won’t know for certain, until they can observe the super-Earths directly.

Our thanks to:
Diana Valencia
Ph.D candidate in planetary science
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

Lindsay Patterson