For any star, it's possible to calculate the range of distances where orbiting planets could have liquid water on the surface. This is called the star's habitable zone.
Astronomers have already located some habitable-zone planets, and research scientist Andrew Rushby, of NASA Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, California, is studying ways to refine the search. Location alone isn't enough. "An alien would spot three planets in our solar system in the habitable zone [Earth, Mars and Venus]," Rushby said, "but we know that 67 percent of those planets are not very habitable." He recently developed a simplified model of Earth's carbon cycle and combined it with other tools to study which planets in the habitable zone would be the best targets to look at for life, considering probable tectonic activity and water cycles. He found that larger rocky planets are more likely than smaller ones to have surface temperatures where liquid water could exist, given the same amount of light from the star.
Renyu Hu, of JPL, refined the search for habitable planets in a different way, looking for the signature of a rocky planet. Basic physics tells us that smaller planets must be rocky and larger ones gaseous, but for planets ranging from Earth-sized to about twice that radius, astronomers can't tell a large rocky planet from a small gaseous planet. Hu pioneered a method to detect surface minerals on bare-rock exoplanets and defined the atmospheric chemical signature of volcanic activity, which wouldn't occur on a gas planet.