Dying stars may host habitable planets with life

Dying star

Dying stars may host Earth-like planets with life, and scientists might be able to detect them within the next decade, astronomers say.

Researchers have 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).

Recent research by CfA astronomers Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau showed that the closest habitable planet is likely toorbit 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.

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.

Researchers said a planet could form from leftover dust and gas - making it a second-generation world or migrate inward from a larger distance.

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