Scientists at the University of Arizona have released a new report that shows tides can play a major role in heating planets. The research suggests tidal heating can create hellish conditions on otherwise livable planets or create favorable conditions on planets that would otherwise be too cold.
Our own solar system is something of an anomaly, in that its planets move in relatively quiescent, circular orbits around the sun. Most extrasolar planets found to date have highly elongated orbits. During each orbit, the planet is stretched most by tides when it is near the star, and less when the planet is farther from its star. The resulting friction generates internal heat, which drives the planet's geophysical processes.
If the recently discovered "super-Earths" – extrasolar planets only 2-to-10 times as massive as Earth – are indeed terrestrial, tidal heating may be great enough to melt them, or at least produce volcanism on par with Jupiter's moon, Io, "dimming their prospects for habitability," Jackson said. So some of the recently discovered super-Earths may be more like "super-Ios," he said. The lo moon is the most volcanically active body in our solar system.
"Tidal heating scales with planet mass, so we expect that most easily detectable super-Earths will be dominated by volcanic activity," Jackson said. "That's one of our first conclusions from this work, that the first Earth-like planets found are probably going to be strongly heated and have big volcanoes. Even if Earth-like planets are found within the habitable zone, they may not be habitable because they will be overwhelmed by this tidal heating."
Tidal heating may also create habitable conditions on planets that otherwise are too small or too cold to support life, Jackson said. Tidal heating can enhance outgassing of volatiles that contribute or replenish a planet's atmosphere through volcanism. Tidal heating also can generate sub-surface liquid oceans on water-rich rocky planets that would otherwise be frozen, just as tidal heating is believed to warm a sub-surface liquid water ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa.
Also, tidal heating can drive plate tectonics, a mechanism that checks excessive carbon dioxide from accumulating in a planetary atmosphere, producing the kind of deadly greenhouse atmosphere found on Venus.