Researchers Investigate If There’s Life After a Star’s Death

Can life survive a star's death? Webb telescope can reveal the answer

The finding of the first transiting giant planet orbiting a white dwarf, dubbed WD 1856 + 534b, indicates the existence of planets around white dwarfs. 

The planet is a gas giant and can’t support life. But its existence indicates that smaller rocky planets, which could support life, could also be present in the habitable zones of white dwarfs. Here is what you need to know.

White Dwarfs Examined

For the recent study, researchers combined model atmospheres of white dwarf planets from previous research and state-of-the-art analysis methods routinely utilized to spot gases in giant exoplanet atmospheres with the Hubble Space Telescope. 

“[…] giant planets can exist around white dwarfs, and evidence stretches back over 100 years showing rocky material polluting light from white dwarfs,” stated Ryan MacDonald, a research associate at the Carl Sagan Institute. 

When stars like our Sun die, all that is left is an uncovered core – a white dwarf. A planet orbiting a white dwarf shows a somehow promising chance to determine if life can survive its star’s death. And this where Cornell University researchers started their study.

Life After a Star’s Death: Could Be Possible?

A planet orbiting a small star generates strong atmospheric signals when it passes in front, or how scientists prefer to say, it transits its host star. 

NASA’s TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is now searching for rocky planets around white dwarfs. The James Webb Space Telescope could also begin searching for similar planets soon. 

The quest to spot signatures of life on a planet orbiting a white dwarf is intense. Most stars, even the Sun, will end up one day, as white dwarfs. 

Researchers really believe that the death of a star is not the end of life. Life could go on, even if, let’s say, the Sun has died. The James Webb Space Telescope could really discover signatures of life on Earth-like planets orbiting a white dwarf. 


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