Can Life Survive a Star’s Death? The James Webb Space Telescope Will Explore

In newly published research, Cornell researchers show how NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could find signatures of life on Earth-like planets orbiting burned-out stars, known as white dwarfs. (Image: Jack Madden via Carl Sagan Institute)

When stars like our Sun die, all that remains is an exposed core — a white dwarf. A planet orbiting a white dwarf presents a promising opportunity to determine if life can survive the death of its star, according to Cornell researchers. In a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, they show how NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could find signatures of life on Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarfs.

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A planet orbiting a small star produces strong atmospheric signals when it passes in front, or “transits,” its host star. White dwarfs push this to the extreme: They are 100 times smaller than our Sun, almost as small as Earth, affording astronomers a rare opportunity to characterize rocky planets. Corresponding author Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, said:

“If rocky planets exist around white dwarfs, we could spot signs of life on them in the next few years.”

Co-lead author Ryan MacDonald, a research associate at the institute, said the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in October 2021, is uniquely placed to find signatures of life on rocky exoplanets:

“When observing Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarfs, the James Webb Space Telescope can detect water and carbon dioxide within a matter of hours. Two days of observing time with this powerful telescope would allow the discovery of biosignature gases, such as ozone and methane.”

The discovery of the first transiting giant planet orbiting a white dwarf (WD 1856+534b), announced Sept. 16 in a separate paper — led by co-author Andrew Vanderburg, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — proves the existence of planets around white dwarfs. Kaltenegger is a co-author of this paper, as well. This planet is a gas giant and therefore not able to sustain life. But its existence suggests that smaller rocky planets, which could sustain life, could also exist in the habitable zones of white dwarfs. MacDonald said:

“We know now that giant planets can exist around white dwarfs, and evidence stretches back over 100 years showing rocky material polluting light from white dwarfs. There are certainly small rocks in white dwarf systems. It’s a logical leap to imagine a rocky planet like the Earth orbiting a white dwarf.”

James Webb Space Telescope will look for signs of life on exoplanets

The researchers combined state-of-the-art analysis techniques routinely used to detect gases in giant exoplanet atmospheres with the Hubble Space Telescope with model atmospheres of white dwarf planets from previous Cornell research. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is now looking for such rocky planets around white dwarfs. If and when one of these worlds is found, Kaltenegger and her team have developed the models and tools to identify signs of life in the planet’s atmosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope could soon begin this search.

James Webb Space Telescope will look for signs of life on exoplanets.
A planet orbiting a small star produces strong atmospheric signals when it passes in front, or ‘transits,’ its host star, as pictured above. White dwarfs offer astronomers a rare opportunity to characterize rocky planets. (Image: via Carl Sagan Institute)

The implications of finding signatures of life on a planet orbiting a white dwarf are profound, Kaltenegger said. Most stars, including our Sun, will one day end up as white dwarfs. Kaltenegger concluded, saying:

“What if the death of the star is not the end for life? Could life go on, even once our sun has died? Signs of life on planets orbiting white dwarfs would not only show the incredible tenacity of life, but perhaps also a glimpse into our future.”

Provided by: Kate Blackwood, Cornell University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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