Galactic Habitable Zone
One of our Sun’s unusual features is its orbit around the center of the galaxy, which is significantly less elliptical (“eccentric”) than those of other stars similar in age (and therefore metallicity, or proportion of an object’s chemical composition other than hydrogen and helium) and type and is barely inclined relative to the Galactic plane. This circularity in the Sun’s orbit prevents it from plunging into the inner Galaxy where life-threatening supernovae are more common. Moreover, the small inclination to the galactic plane avoids abrupt crossings of the plane that would stir up the Sun’s Oort Cloud and bombard the Earth with life-threatening comets.
In fact, the Sun is orbiting very close to the “co-rotation radius” of the galaxy, where the angular speed of the galaxy’s spiral arms matches that of the stars within. As a result, the Sun avoids crossing the spiral arms very often, which would expose Earth to supernovae that are more common there. These exceptional circumstances may have made it more likely for complex life and human intelligence to emerge on Earth. According to Guillermo Gonzalez (an astronomer at Iowa State University), fewer than five percent of all stars in the galaxy enjoy such a life-enhancing galactic orbit. Other astronomers point out, however, that many nearby stars move with the Sun in a similar galactic orbit.
The Sun resides in a pancake region of the Galaxy called the “disk” with a strong concentration of stars (and gas and dust) within 3,000 light-years (ly) of the galactic plane, which includes the so-called “thin disk” that has more relatively younger stars within 1,500 ly of the plane (more on stellar population groups in our Milky Way Galaxy). This region contains relatively young to intermediate-aged stars that within around five billion years old with relatively higher average metallicity than other galactic regions located outside of the galactic core, in a circular band that broadens with time. Generated by the deaths of older stars, the greater availability of elements higher than hydrogen and helium in this galactic region favor the formation of rocky inner planets as large as Earth, or bigger (Gonzalez et al, 2001). Moreover, the galactic orbits of stars in this region tend to be relatively circular — with low to moderate eccentricity. According to one recent definition of the galactic habitable zone, as much as 10 percent of all stars in the Milky Way may have experienced chemical and environmental conditions suitable for the development of complex Earth-type life over the past eight to four billion years for evolutionary development (press release; and Lineweaver et al, 2004, in pdf). (Further discussion of the different galactic regions and their distinctive stellar populations is available from ChView’s “The Stars of the Milky Way.”)
In recent millenia, the Sun has been passing through a Local Interstellar Cloud (LIC) that is flowing away from the Scorpius-Centaurus Association of young stars dominated by extremely hot and bright O and B spectral types, many of which will end their brief lives violently as supernovae. The LIC is itself surrounded by a larger, lower density cavity in the interstellar medium (ISM) called the Local Bubble, that was probably formed by one or more relatively recent supernova explosions. As shown in a 2002 Astronomy Picture of the Day, located just outside the Local Bubble are: high-density molecular clouds such as the Aquila Rift which surrounds some star forming regions; the Gum Nebula, a region of hot ionized hydrogen gas which includes the Vela Supernova Remnant, which is expanding to create fragmented shells of material like the LIC; and the Orion Shell and Orion Association, which includes the Great Orion Nebula, the Trapezium of hot B- and O-type stars, the three belt stars of Orion, and local blue supergiant star Rigel.
Top Image credit: Yeshe Fenner, STcI, AURA, NASA, ESA
(Source: stellar-indulgence, via atomstargazer)