Study: Extraterrestrial Life May Be Detectable Near White Dwarfs

If extraterrestrial life exists near dying stars, there may be a way to detect it within the next decade, according to a new theoretical study co-authored by Harvard astronomy professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb.

The study, which was also authored by Tel Aviv University professor Dan Maoz, developed a method for identifying oxygen in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets orbiting the class of cooling stars known as “white dwarfs.”

While many previous studies have proposed methods to investigate the possibility of life on the planets of stars in the middle of their lifetimes, like our sun, Loeb said that none of these proposals were “practical in the immediate future.”

In contrast, Loeb’s proposal uses NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to launch in 2018.

Within just five hours, the telescope would be able to detect whether the atmospheres of planets surrounding white dwarfs contain oxygen using infrared analysis.

Harvard astronomy professor Jonathan “Josh” E. Grindlay said that although this study offers “a very reasonable approach,” it is “very unlikely” that this particular method will yield the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

In their study, Loeb and Maoz estimated that the examination of 500 white dwarfs will yield at least one terrestrial planet with the potential for life.

Because white dwarfs and the Earth are comparable in size, a planet of the Earth’s volume would block the white dwarf’s light once in every orbit. Due to this pattern, only a “relatively modest effort” would be required for astronomers to detect white dwarfs with planets, Loeb said.

But due to the relative dimness of white dwarfs, it is unlikely that 500 will be quickly detected, Grindlay said.

No white dwarf planets have been discovered yet. These planets must be detected before Loeb and Maoz’s method can be applied.

Loeb said that he is “100 percent sure” that the telescope will be available for the project after white dwarf planets are identified.

“The question of whether there is life outside the earth is perhaps the most exciting question that astronomers can answer,” Loeb said. “If we find a positive answer to this question, it would have major implications for not just science, but philosophy, religion, everything. It would change our conception of our place in the universe.”


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