While NASA’s Parker Probe delves into the mysteries of our own sun, other objects known as brown dwarfs taunt us, adrift in a limbo between star and gas giant.
Could Life Survive Around a Failed Star?
November 2, 2018
To date, a little over 3700 exoplanets have been discovered. Many of these owe their discovery to the Kepler Space Telescope, which as of writing this post has been retired by its masters. Thank you Kepler.
Not all of these planets are habitable. Far from it in fact. Only about 55 “Earthlike” planets have been earmarked for a closer examination. With an estimated 2 trillion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, this tiny group of maybes doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the astrobiology crowd. In order to simplify things a little, researchers generally look for life as we understand it, in environments we can understand. A world with a mild climate, liquid water, with life employing carbon is the rule of thumb.
It’s a big universe though, and life not as we know it could be the norm. What kinds of lifeforms could exist in environments in which life on earth could never arise?
In the atmospheres of gas giants? On frozen worlds? What about rogue planets: worlds not tethered to a solar system. These wanderers could be common in this galaxy. What about brown dwarfs?
What is a brown dwarf ? Often they are referred to as brown dwarf stars, and this gives some clue as to their nature. Literally, a brown dwarf is a failed star. That is to say, a brown dwarf is a former protostar which has failed to reach the critical mass required for star hood. Far from being underachievers though, brown dwarfs are interesting to exoplanet researchers. These mysterious objects exhibit properties of stars and planets.
A rogue planet is a wandering planet: homeless so to speak. How is this important for exoplanet research? In my most recent video I talked a little about some of the difficulties faced by astronomers when attempting to directly image exoplanets.
The images don’t look like much. One problem with direct imaging is that the light from host stars get in the way. Brown dwarfs circumvent this by often being standalone objects, enabling researchers to examine these “pseudoplanets” (pseudostars?) and learn more about exoplanet characteristics and behaviour.
What about their starlike features?
A star is an object which uses fusion of elements such as hydrogen or helium to produce heat and light. Other stars fuse heavier elements, but we’ll just avoid that fork in the road today 😉
This is a red dwarf star at work. The heat and light produced by this little monster could support life in other solar systems. TRAPPIST-1 is a well known example.
This is an artists impression of a typical brown dwarf. Generally much more massive than Jupiter, our own big guy, this object may undergo limited fusion of heavier elements such as deuterium.
Of even more interest to astrobiologists: brown dwarfs could be capable of supporting life! Not in themselves as such, but several brown dwarfs are known to possess their own planetary systems.
Let’s add a planet to this image. A planet in orbit around a brown dwarf may be heated by tidal stresses. Worlds such as Europa in our solar system lie far beyond the habitable zone surrounding our sun, yet may theoretically harbour life in a subsurface ocean heated by tidal forces. Hypothetical worlds orbiting brown dwarfs could experience something similar.
Of course, as I have pointed out to me all the time, life is fairly fussy, and requires a fairly stringent catalogue of conditions and contingencies. We can still dream right? After all, what’s the point of astrobiology if not to colour outside the lines a little?
Or a lot?
Find me on YouTube and while you’re at it, some other posts on this blog require your attention!
For some bizarre reason, I can’t caption images right now. All images produced by Ben Roberts, with the exception of image two, which was produced by the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope.