Living near a White Dwarf

Recently, the first planet to orbit a white dwarf—the latter named WD 1856+534—was discovered through its transit in front of the tiny star once every 1.4 days. Remarkably, this giant planet, WD 1856b, is seven times bigger than the stellar remnant it transits. Most likely, there are rocky, Earth-size planets at similar distances from other white dwarfs—in which case they would possess a surface temperature similar to that of Earth. This hits us close to home.

In about a billion years, the sun will brighten up enough to boil away the oceans on Earth through a runaway greenhouse effect. In order to survive, our civilization will have to migrate outwards in the solar system. Seven billion years later, the core of the sun will shrink to its remnant, a white dwarf, carrying about half of the solar mass with the rest lost.

A white dwarf is a hot, dense, metallic crystal ball, roughly the size of the Earth—1.4 Earth radii in the case of WD 1856+534—that is slowly cooling off because it no longer has a central nuclear engine. There are 10 billion white dwarfs in the Milky Way galaxy because many sunlike stars have already gone through the process of dying. This is a result of a fortuitous coincidence between the life span of sunlike stars and the current age of the universe.

After a few billion years, a white dwarf cools to a surface temperature similar to that of the present-day sun. In particular, WD 1856+534 was estimated to have an age of 6 billion years and a surface temperature of 4,700 kelvins, somewhat lower than the current solar value of 5,800 kelvins. The newly discovered planet is 50 times closer to WD 1856+534 than the Earth’s distance from the sun.

Since this white dwarf is 76 times smaller in size than the sun, an observer located just inside the orbit of the newly detected planet, at about 1 percent of the Earth-sun separation, would witness an illumination similar to that on Earth, with WD 1856+534 occupying roughly the same angle as the sun does in our sky. In such a “habitable zone” around any white dwarf, the University of Washington’s Eric Agol suggested in a 2011 paper, liquid water could exist on the surface of a rocky planet, enabling the chemistry of life as we know it. Owing to the short orbital time, residents of a habitable world around WD 1856+534 would be busy celebrating their birthday once every 33 hours—the length of a year on that planet.

Given that the luminous surface area of a white dwarf is 10,000 times smaller than that of the sun, absorption features from a planet’s atmosphere during a transit of a white dwarf are much more easily detectable than for sunlike stars. During a full transit, which would last a few minutes, an Earth-size planet would occult the entire white dwarf. Given the proximity of the planet to the star, the transit repetition rate is hundreds of times larger compared

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Two planets found orbiting a red dwarf

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Red dwarfs are the coolest kind of star. As such, they potentially allow liquid water to exist on planets that are quite close to them. In the search for habitable worlds beyond the borders of our solar system, this is a big advantage: the distance between an exoplanet and its star is a crucial factor for its detection. The closer the two are, the higher the chance that astronomers can detect the planet from Earth.

“But these stars are rather small and emit little light compared to most other stars, such as our Sun,” Brice-Olivier Demory, lead author of the study and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Bern explains. These factors make them challenging to observe in detail. Without the proper instruments, any planets that might orbit them could easily be overlooked—especially terrestrial planets, like Earth, that are comparably small.

A dedicated telescope

One instrument, with which it is possible to study red dwarfs and their planets closely, is the Mexico-based SAINT-EX telescope, co-operated by the NCCR PlanetS. SAINT-EX is an acronym that stands for Search And characterIsatioN of Transiting EXoplanets. The project has been named in honor of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex), the famous writer, poet and aviator.

The SAINT-EX Observatory is a fully robotic facility hosting a 1-meter telescope. It is equipped with instrumentation specifically suited to enable high-precision detection of small planets orbiting cool stars. Now, this specialization pays off: earlier this year, the telescope was able to detect two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266, located around 120 light years from Earth. The research, published recently in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, provides a first impression of their characteristics.

Two planets found orbiting a red dwarf
The SAINT-EX Observatory is a fully robotic facility hosting a 1-metre telescope based in Mexico. Credit: Institute of Astronomy, UNAM / E. Cadena

A peculiar pair

Compared to the planets in our solar system, TOI-1266 b and c are much closer to their star—it takes them only 11 and 19 days respectively to orbit it. However, as their host star is much cooler than the Sun, their temperatures are not very extreme: the outer planet has approximately the temperature of Venus (although it is 7 times closer to its star than Venus is to the Sun). The two planets are of similar density, possibly corresponding to a composition of about a half of rocky and metallic material and half water. This makes them about half as rocky as Earth or Venus but also far rockier than Uranus or Neptune.

In size, the planets clearly differ from each other. The inner planet, TOI-1266 b, measures up to a little under two-and-a-half times the Earth’s diameter. This makes it a so-called “sub-Neptune.” The outer planet, TOI-1266 c, is just over one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Thus, it belongs to the category of “super-Earths.”

This places the two planets at the edges of the so-called radius-valley, as Brice-Olivier Demory explains: “Planets between about the radius of TOI-1266 b and c are quite

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