Watery planets orbiting dead stars may be good candidates for studying life—if they can survive long enough

By Jurassic JennJun 17, 2024 12:47 PMScience
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Watery planets orbiting dead stars may be good candidates for studying life—if they can survive long enough
Watery planets orbiting dead stars may be good candidates for studying life—if they can survive long enough. Source: www.wionews.com

Studying the potential for life on watery planets orbiting dead stars poses both challenges and opportunities, according to a recent study on white dwarf systems. The diminished size and faint light of white dwarfs, which are remnants of stars that have depleted their fuel, offer excellent backgrounds for observing planets with sufficient water to sustain life. However, detecting these planets requires identifying their shadows against a former star that has shrunk to a fraction of its original size, while also determining if the planets have retained their water over billions of years, including withstanding the violent final stages of the star's lifespan. The study suggests that certain watery planets, in theory, could align with the necessary conditions for observation and subsequent examination. This was reported by SSPDaily.

When astronomers analyze exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) for signs of life, they gather data during their transit across their host stars, using the telescopic passage of starlight through the planets' atmospheres to analyze the elements and molecules present. The advantage of studying planets orbiting white dwarfs lies in their smaller size and more benign nature, providing clearer atmospheric readings compared to larger, highly active stars.

University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomy professor Juliette Becker, lead author of the study, explains that studying terrestrial planets as they transit in front of white dwarfs allows for better characterization of their atmospheres. This occurs as a larger proportion of the observed light passes through the planet's atmosphere, indicating a more substantial and definitive signal. Therefore, the potential for discovering habitable exoplanets is greater when observing white dwarfs.

Surviving the final stages of a small- to medium-sized star poses the primary challenge for watery exoplanets in this scenario, as such stars often undergo an intense outburst. When stars like our sun reach the end of their core's fusion reactions, they expand significantly, engulfing any planets in close proximity during the "Destruction Phase No. 1." Even if a planet manages to escape engulfment, it faces further hazards as the star's subsequent mass loss and increased brightness can evaporate the planet's oceans.

The study reveals that an Earth-like planet needs to orbit at least 5 to 6 astronomical units (AU) away from the dying star to retain a significant amount of water amidst the star's expansion, planet ingestion, and heightened irradiation. However, a planet's distance from the star jeopardizes its potential for liquid water. While staying far away from the star during this tumultuous phase reduces the risk of water loss, it also results in icy water conditions, which are unfavorable for sustaining life.

Ultimately, as the white dwarf cools and diminishes in size, a planet must be situated within approximately 1% of 1 astronomical unit to receive enough heat for liquid water. Tidal migration, a phenomenon where a planet's orbit changes due to interactions within the planetary system, can potentially move planets closer to the white dwarf. High-eccentricity orbits, similar to comet-like trajectories, can bring planets near the central body before settling into more stable paths, effectively drawing them close to a white dwarf.

Lead author Juliette Becker underscores that the planet's journey is precarious and poses challenges for ocean viability. Nevertheless, it is feasible for a planet to traverse these processes and maintain its water. Further research on white dwarf-planet pairings is necessary to refine the likelihood of habitable exoplanets and guide the allocation of limited telescope resources for future explorations.

Becker emphasizes that identifying promising white dwarfs to survey for potentially habitable exoplanets warrants dedicated time and effort. The theoretical techniques employed in the study will aid in identifying the most suitable candidates, facilitating efficient allocation of resources without squandering resources on uninteresting targets.

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