We’ve currently found 867 different exoplanets, but have yet to definitely determine if one of those harbors life. How will astronomers make that determination? They’ll look at things such as its composition, orbital properties, atmosphere, and potential chemical interactions. While oxygen is relatively abundant in the Universe, finding it in the atmosphere of a distant planet could point to its habitability because its presence – in large quantities — would signal the likely presence of life.
But where to look first? A new study finds that we could detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf – a star that is in the process of dying — 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.
Loeb and his colleague Dan Maoz from Tel Aviv University estimate that a survey of the 500 closest white dwarfs could spot one or more habitable Earths.
A white dwarf is what stars like the Sun become after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel. It puffs off its outer layers, leaving behind a hot core which can be 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.
Currently, most planets that we’ve found orbit close to their parent star, since astronomers find planets using astrometry by the gravitational influence the planet has on the star, causing it to wobble ever so slightly. Massive planets close to the star have the biggest effect and so are the easiest to detect.
Using the photometry, astronomers see a dip in the amount of light a star gives off when a planet passes in front of the star. 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. Photometry, or the transit method, has proven the best way to find exoplanets.
A white dwarf is much smaller and fainter than the Sun, and a planet would have to be much closer in to be habitable with liquid water on its surface, so that should make planets around a white dwarf star easier to detect. A habitable planet would circle the white dwarf once every 10 hours at a distance of about a million miles.
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.
But there’s a caveat: 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. Either it would migrate towards the star from a more distant orbit or be a new planet formed from leftover dust and gas.
However, we have yet to find a exoplanet around a white dwarf, even though Loeb and Moaz say the abundance of heavy elements on the surface of white dwarfs suggests that a significant fraction of them have rocky planets.
We need a better eye in the sky to find planets around white dwarfs, say Loeb and Maoz, and the 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.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.