Hunting for hidden life on worlds orbiting old, red stars

ITHACA, N.Y. – All throughout the universe, there are stars in varying phases and ages. Planetary diversity suggests that around other stars, initially frozen worlds could be the size of Earth and provide habitable conditions once the star becomes older. The oldest detected Kepler planets (exoplanets found using NASA’s Kepler telescope) are about 11 billion years old. Our sun is currently 4.6 billion years old. Astronomers usually looked at middle-aged stars like our sun, but to find habitable worlds, one needs to look around stars of all ages, including red giants.

In their work, Ramses M. Ramirez, research associate at Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute and Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, have modeled the locations of the habitable zones for aging stars and how long planets can stay in it. Their research, “Habitable Zones of Post-Main Sequence Stars,” is published in the Astrophysical Journal May 16.

The “habitable zone” is the region around a star in which water on a planet’s surface is liquid and signs of life can be remotely detected by telescopes.

“When a star ages and brightens, the habitable zone moves outward and you’re basically giving a second wind to a planetary system,” said Ramirez. “Currently objects in these outer regions are frozen in our own solar system, and Europa and Enceladus – moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn – are icy for now.”

Dependent upon the mass (weight) of the original star, planets and their moons loiter in this red giant habitable zone up to 9 billion years. Earth, for example, has been in our sun’s habitable zone so far for about 4.5 billion years, and it has teemed with changing iterations of life. However, in a few billion years our sun will become a red giant, engulfing Mercury and Venus, turning Earth and Mars into sizzling rocky planets, and warming distant worlds like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune – and their moons – in a newly established red giant habitable zone.

“Long after our own plain yellow sun expands to become a red giant star and turns Earth into a sizzling hot wasteland, there will still be regions in our solar system – and other solar systems as well – where life might thrive,” says Kaltenegger.

“For stars that are like our sun, but older, such thawed planets could stay warm up to half a billion years in the red giant habitable zone. That’s no small amount of time,” said Ramirez, who is the lead author of the study.

SUN_Habitable_Zones_withAgeSmallRedStarandOldRedStar_HabitableZone

Fig: Where a planet can be habitable and warm around (left) our Sun as the Sun ages (right)around a small red star as it ages

“In the far future, such worlds could become habitable around small red suns for billions of years, maybe even starting life, just like on Earth. That makes me very optimistic about the chances for life in the long run,” said Kaltenegger.

SizeComparisonSunRedGiant

Fig: Size comparison Sun now, and when it will be a Red Giant

SunHabitableZoneAsRedGiantpressMdwarfHabitableZoneasGiant

Fig. The distance of the Habitable Zone (left) as our Sun ages (right) as a small red star ages.

This research was supported by the Simons Foundation and by the Carl Sagan Institute.

 

 

 

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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