White Dwarfs Could Support Life. So Where are All Their Planets?

Artist's view of old white dwarfs surrounded by planetary debris. Credit: University of Warwick/Dr Mark Garlick

Astronomers have found plenty of white dwarf stars surrounded by debris disks. Those disks are the remains of planets destroyed by the star as it evolved. But they’ve found one intact Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a white dwarf.

Are there more white dwarf planets? Can terrestrial, Earth-like planets exist around white dwarfs?

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Three Planets Around this Sunlike Star are Doomed. Doomed!

A distant Sun-like star will leave the main sequence behind, ending its life of fusion. Then it'll expand into a red giant, totally destroying its four planets. Image Credit: fsgregs Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

According to new research we can start writing the eulogy for four exoplanets around a Sun-like star about 57 light years away. But there’s no hurry; we have about one billion years before the star becomes a red giant and starts to destroy them.

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JWST Searches for Planets in the Fomalhaut System

This image shows Fomalhaut, the star around which the newly discovered planet orbits. Fomalhaut is much hotter than our Sun, 15 times as bright, and lies 25 light-years from Earth. It is blazing through hydrogen at such a furious rate that it will burn out in only one billion years, 10% the lifespan of our star. The field of view is 2.7 x 2.9 degrees.

The Fomalhaut system is nearby in astronomical terms, and it’s also one of the brightest stars in the night sky. That means astronomers have studied it intensely over the years. Now that we have the powerful James Webb Space Telescope the observations have intensified.

The Fomalhaut system has a confounding and complex dusty disk, including a dusty blob. The blob has been the subject of an ongoing debate in astronomy. Can the JWST see through its complexity and find answers to the systems unanswered questions?

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Want to Find Life? Compare a Planet to its Neighbors

Earth compared to the exoplanet Kepler-186f. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

With thousands of known exoplanets and tens of thousands likely to be discovered in the coming decades, it could be only a matter of time before we discover a planet with life. The trick is proving it. So far the focus has been on observing the atmospheric composition of exoplanets, looking for molecular biosignatures that would indicate the presence of life. But this can be difficult since many of the molecules produced by life on Earth could also be produced by geologic processes. A new study argues that a better approach would be to compare the atmospheric composition of a potentially habitable world with those of other planets in the star system.

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Misaligned Binary Star Systems are Rogue Planet Factories

Artist's impression of a rogue planet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/P. Delorme/R. Saito/VVV Consortium

Most of the planets in the Universe orbit a star. They are part of a system of planets, similar to our own solar system. But a few planets drift alone in the cosmos. For whatever reason, be it a near collision or slow gravitational perturbations that destabilize its orbit, these planets are cast out of their star system and sent adrift. These rogue planets are notoriously challenging to find, but as we start to discover them we’re finding they are a bit more common than we’d thought. Now a new study posits a reason why.

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JWST Sees Four Exoplanets in a Single System

This artist’s rendering shows the star HR 8799 and one of its four planets, HR 8799c. It illustrates the system at an early stage of evolution. It also shows the star's dusty disk and rocky inner planets. Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

When the JWST activated its penetrating infrared eyes in July 2022, it faced a massive wish-list of targets compiled by an eager international astronomy community. Distant, early galaxies, nascent planets forming in dusty disks, and the end of the Universe’s dark ages and its first light were on the list. But exoplanets were also on the list, and there were thousands of them beckoning to be studied.

But one distant solar system stood out: HR 8799, a system about 133 light-years away.

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What’s the Best Way to Find Planets in the Habitable Zone?

This artist's illustration of Kepler 22-b, an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star about 640 light years (166 parsecs) away. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Despite the fact that we’ve discovered thousands of them, exoplanets are hard to find. And some types are harder to find than others. Naturally, some of the hardest ones to find are the ones we most want to find. What can we do?

Keep working on it, and that’s what a trio of Chinese scientists are doing.

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An Exo-Neptune Beat the Odds and Kept its Atmosphere

An artist impression of exoplanet LTT9779b orbiting its host star. Credit: Ricardo Ramírez Reyes (Universidad de Chile)

As planet-hunting scientists find more and more planets, they’ve encountered some puzzles. One of them concerns the lack of Neptune-size worlds orbiting close to their stars. Astronomers think that these planets aren’t massive enough to retain their atmospheres in the face of their stars’ powerful radiation, which strips it away.

But at least one of these planets has retained its atmosphere. How?

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Do Red Dwarfs or Sunlike Stars Have More Earth-Sized Worlds?

This artist's concept illustrates a young, red dwarf star surrounded by three planets. There's growing evidence that red dwarfs place serious limits on exoplanet habitability. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech - NASA Image of the Day, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17104843

Earth is our only example of a habitable planet, so it makes sense to search for Earth-size worlds when we’re hunting for potentially-habitable exoplanets. When astronomers found seven of them orbiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 system, people wondered if Earth-size planets are more common around red dwarfs than Sun-like stars.

But are they? Maybe not.

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An Exoplanet so Hot it has Clouds Made of Quartz

Artist illustration showing what WASP-17 b could look like based on data obtained from a myriad of ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble, Webb, and the retired Spitzer space telescopes. This most recent study used MIRI (Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument) to identify nanocrystals of quartz within the clouds WASP-17 b. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and R. Crawford (STScI))

A recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters used data obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify the presence of quartz nanocrystals in the upper atmosphere of WASP-17 b, an exoplanet whose mass and radius are approximately 0.78 and 1.87 that of Jupiter, respectively, and is located approximately 1,324 light-years from Earth. WASP-17 b is classified as a “puffy” hot Jupiter due to its 3.7-day orbital period, meaning the extreme temperatures could cause unique chemical processes to occur within its atmosphere, but the astronomers were still surprised by the findings.

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