Dying Stars Could Have Completely New Habitable Zones

As stars like our Sun age, their habitable zones shift, and they can warm planets that were once frozen. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Aging stars that become red giants increase their luminosity and can wreak havoc on planets that were once in the star’s habitable zones. When the Sun becomes a red giant and expands, its habitable zone will move further outward, meaning Earth will likely lose its atmosphere, its water, and its life. But for planets further out, their time in the habitable zone will just begin.

Is there enough time for life to arise on these newly habitable planets?

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Another Explanation for K2-18b? A Gas-Rich Mini-Neptune with No Habitable Surface

Artist depiction of the mini-Neptune K2-18 b. Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmstead (STScI), N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Exoplanet K2-18b is garnering a lot of attention. James Webb Space Telescope spectroscopy shows it has carbon and methane in its atmosphere. Those results, along with other observations, suggest the planet could be a long-hypothesized ‘Hycean World.’ But new research counters that.

Instead, the planet could be a gaseous mini-Neptune.

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Is the Habitable Zone Really Habitable?

Solar flares pose a major hazard to electronics and infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit, but they may have played a role in kick-starting life on Earth. Credit: NASA/SDO/J. Major

The water that life knows and needs, the water that makes a world habitable, the water that acts as the universal solvent for all the myriad and fantastically complicated chemical reactions that make us different than the dirt and rocks, can only come in one form: liquid.

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The Galactic Habitable Zone

Artist depiction of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Andrew Z. Colvin

Our planet sits in the Habitable Zone of our Sun, the special place where water can be liquid on the surface of a world. But that’s not the only thing special about us: we also sit in the Galactic Habitable Zone, the region within the Milky Way where the rate of star formation is just right.

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The Combination of Oxygen and Methane Could Reveal the Presence of Life on Another World

This artist’s impression shows a Super-Earth orbiting a Sun-like star. HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

In searching for life in the Universe, a field known as astrobiology, scientists rely on Earth as a template for biological and evolutionary processes. This includes searching for Earth analogs, rocky planets that orbit within their parent star’s habitable zone (HZ) and have atmospheres composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. However, Earth’s atmosphere has evolved considerably over time from a toxic plume of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and traces of volcanic gas. Over time, the emergence of photosynthetic organisms caused a transition, leading to the atmosphere we see today.

The last 500 million years, known as the Phanerozoic Eon, have been particularly significant for the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and terrestrial species. This period saw a significant rise in oxygen content and the emergence of animals, dinosaurs, and embryophyta (land plants). Unfortunately, the resulting transmission spectra are missing in our search for signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres. To address this gap, a team of Cornell researchers created a simulation of the atmosphere during the Phanerozoic Eon, which could have significant implications in the search for life on extrasolar planets.

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A Third of Planets Orbiting Red Dwarf Stars Could be in the Habitable Zone

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of researchers from the University of Florida (UF) examine orbital eccentricities for exoplanets orbiting red dwarf (M dwarf) stars and determined that one-third of them—which encompass hundreds of millions throughout the Milky Way—could exist within their star’s habitable zone (HZ), which is that approximate distance from their star where liquid water can exist on the surface. The researchers determined the remaining two-thirds of exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs are too hot for liquid water to exist on their surfaces due to tidal extremes, resulting in a sterilization of the planetary surface.

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Forget the Habitable Zone – We Need to Find the Computational Zone

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers are currently searching for signs of life in the “habitable zones” of nearby stars, which is defined as the band around a star where liquid water can potentially exist. But a recent paper argues that we need to take a more nuanced and careful approach, based not on the potential for life, but the potential for computation.

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Moons Orbiting Rogue Planets Could be Habitable

An artist's conception of a potentially-habitable exomoon. Credit: NASA

When looking for signs of life beyond the Solar System, astrobiologists are confined to looking for life as we understand it. For the most part, that means looking for rocky planets that orbit within their star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ), the distance at which liquid water can exist on its surface. In the coming years, next-generation telescopes and instruments will allow astronomers to characterize exoplanet atmospheres like never before. When that happens, they will look for the chemical signatures we associate with life, like nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.

However, astrobiologists have theorized that life could exist in the outer Solar System beneath the surfaces of icy moons like Europa, Callisto, Titan, and other “Ocean Worlds.” Because of this, there is no shortage of astrobiologists who think that the search for extraterrestrial life should include exomoons, including those that orbit free-floating planets (FFPs). In a recent study, researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) determined the necessary properties that allow moons orbiting FFPs to retain enough liquid water to support life.

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Earth-Sized Planet Found At One of the Lightest Red Dwarfs

Artist’s conception of a rocky Earth-mass exoplanet like Wolf 1069 b orbiting a red dwarf star. If the planet has retained its atmosphere, chances are high that it would feature liquid water and habitable conditions over a wide area of its dayside. Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

Astronomers have found another Earth-sized planet. It’s about 31 light-years away and orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star. It’s probably tidally locked, which can be a problem around red dwarf stars. But the team that found it is optimistic about its potential habitability.

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Planet Found in the Habitable Zone of a White Dwarf

An artist’s impression of the white dwarf star WD1054–226 orbited by clouds of planetary debris and a major planet in the habitable zone. Credit Mark A. Garlick / markgarlick.com Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Most stars will end their lives as white dwarfs. White dwarfs are the remnant cores of once-luminous stars like our Sun, but they’ve left their lives of fusion behind and no longer generate heat. They’re destined to glow with only their residual energy for billions of years before they eventually fade to black.

Could life eke out an existence on a planet huddled up to one of these fading spectres?

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