The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to be launched by NASA in 2018, will be capable of detecting oxygen and water in the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet orbiting a white dwarf after only a few hours of observation time—much more easily than for an Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star. Dan Maoz of Tel Aviv University and Avi Loeb, Director of Harvard University’s Institute for Theory and Computation and a Sackler Professor by Special Appointment at TAU, have shown that, using advanced technology to become available within the next decade, it should be possible to detect biomarkers surrounding these planets—including oxygen and methane—that indicate the presence of life. They estimate that a survey of 500 of the closest white dwarfs could spot one or more habitable planets. Evidence of heavy elements already observed on the surface of white dwarf stars suggest rocky planets orbit a significant fraction of them.
The unique characteristics of white dwarfs could make these planets easier to spot than planets orbiting normal stars, the researchers have shown. Their atmospheres can be detected and analyzed when a star dims as an orbiting planet crosses in front of it. As the background starlight shines through the planet’s atmosphere, elements in the atmosphere will absorb some of the starlight, leaving chemical clues of their presence—clues that can then be detected from the JWST.
Journal reference: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
The Daily Galaxy via Tel Aviv University and Harvard University