Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Future Evidence for Extraterrestrial Life Might Come from Dying Stars

26.02.2013
Even dying stars could host planets with life - and if such life exists, we might be able to detect it within the next decade.
This encouraging result comes from a new theoretical study of Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarf stars. Researchers found that we could detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a white dwarf's planet much more easily than for an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star.

"In the quest for extraterrestrial biological signatures, the first stars we study should be white dwarfs," said Avi Loeb, theorist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation.

When a star like the Sun dies, it puffs off its outer layers, leaving behind a hot core called a white dwarf. A typical white dwarf is about the size of Earth. It slowly cools and fades over time, but it can retain heat long enough to warm a nearby world for billions of years.

Since a white dwarf is much smaller and fainter than the Sun, a planet would have to be much closer in to be habitable with liquid water on its surface. A habitable planet would circle the white dwarf once every 10 hours at a distance of about a million miles.

Before a star becomes a white dwarf it swells into a red giant, engulfing and destroying any nearby planets. Therefore, a planet would have to arrive in the habitable zone after the star evolved into a white dwarf. A planet could form from leftover dust and gas (making it a second-generation world), or migrate inward from a larger distance.

If planets exist in the habitable zones of white dwarfs, we would need to find them before we could study them. The abundance of heavy elements on the surface of white dwarfs suggests that a significant fraction of them have rocky planets. Loeb and his colleague Dan Maoz (Tel Aviv University) estimate that a survey of the 500 closest white dwarfs could spot one or more habitable Earths.

The best method for finding such planets is a transit search - looking for a star that dims as an orbiting planet crosses in front of it. Since a white dwarf is about the same size as Earth, an Earth-sized planet would block a large fraction of its light and create an obvious signal.

More importantly, we can only study the atmospheres of transiting planets. When the white dwarf's light shines through the ring of air that surrounds the planet's silhouetted disk, the atmosphere absorbs some starlight. This leaves chemical fingerprints showing whether that air contains water vapor, or even signatures of life, such as oxygen.

Astronomers are particularly interested in finding oxygen because the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere is continuously replenished, through photosynthesis, by plant life. Were all life to cease on Earth, our atmosphere would quickly become devoid of oxygen, which would dissolve in the oceans and oxidize the surface. Thus, the presence of large quantities of oxygen in the atmosphere of a distant planet would signal the likely presence of life there.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch by the end of this decade, promises to sniff out the gases of these alien worlds. Loeb and Maoz created a synthetic spectrum, replicating what JWST would see if it examined a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf. They found that both oxygen and water vapor would be detectable with only a few hours of total observation time.

"JWST offers the best hope of finding an inhabited planet in the near future," said Maoz.

Recent research by CfA astronomers Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau showed that the closest habitable planet is likely to orbit a red dwarf star (a cool, low-mass star undergoing nuclear fusion). Since a red dwarf, although smaller and fainter than the Sun, is much larger and brighter than a white dwarf, its glare would overwhelm the faint signal from an orbiting planet's atmosphere. JWST would have to observe hundreds of hours of transits to have any hope of analyzing the atmosphere's composition.

"Although the closest habitable planet might orbit a red dwarf star, the closest one we can easily prove to be life-bearing might orbit a white dwarf," said Loeb.

Their paper has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7462
daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu
Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7463
cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu

Christine Pulliam | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.cfa.harvard.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Solar wind impacts on giant 'space hurricanes' may affect satellite safety
19.09.2017 | Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

nachricht Integrated lasers on different surfaces
19.09.2017 | The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

Im Focus: Fast, convenient & standardized: New lab innovation for automated tissue engineering & drug

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems Holding GmbH about commercial use of a multi-well tissue plate for automated and reliable tissue engineering & drug testing.

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems...

Im Focus: Silencing bacteria

HZI researchers pave the way for new agents that render hospital pathogens mute

Pathogenic bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics to an ever increasing degree. One of the most difficult germs is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a...

Im Focus: Artificial Enzymes for Hydrogen Conversion

Scientists from the MPI for Chemical Energy Conversion report in the first issue of the new journal JOULE.

Cell Press has just released the first issue of Joule, a new journal dedicated to sustainable energy research. In this issue James Birrell, Olaf Rüdiger,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

IVAM’s LaserForum visits the Swiss canton of St. Gallen with the topic ultrashort pulse lasers

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Robust and functional – surface finishing by suspension spraying

19.09.2017 | Materials Sciences

The Wadden Sea and the Elbe Studied with Zeppelin, Drones and Research Ships

19.09.2017 | Earth Sciences

Digging sensors out of an efficiency hole

19.09.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>