White Dwarfs Hold Key to Finding Extraterrestrial Life

A new theoretical study of Earth-like exoplanets orbiting white dwarf stars, accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (arXiv.org version), suggests that astronomers could detect oxygen in the atmosphere of one much more easily than for an exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star.

An artist’s impression of a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf. The ghostly blue ring is a planetary nebula - hydrogen gas the star ejected as it evolved from a red giant to a white dwarf (David A. Aguilar / CfA)

An artist’s impression of a habitable planet orbiting a white dwarf. The ghostly blue ring is a planetary nebula – hydrogen gas the star ejected as it evolved from a red giant to a white dwarf (David A. Aguilar / CfA)

“In the quest for extraterrestrial biological signatures, the first stars we study should be white dwarfs,” said study lead author Dr Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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, 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. Astronomers 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.

“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,” Dr Loeb concluded.

______

Bibliographic information: Abraham Loeb, Dan Maoz. 2013. Detecting bio-markers in habitable-zone earths transiting white dwarfs. Accepted for publication in MNRAS; arXiv: 1301.4994