Cornell University
Off World

Dying Stars Could Transform Frozen Planets Into Habitable Worlds

Life outside Earth may happen in our solar system—a few billion years from now.

karenfernandezMay 18th 2016

Lazarus Planets

According to recent findings by the astronomers from Cornell University in New York, stars that evolve into red giants can actually nurture dead planets around them into habitable havens for life.

Bringing this concept closer to home—when our Sun eventually reaches its final stage of stellar evolution, it will begin a thermonuclear fusion in its core that will literally overheat nearby planets while invigorating planets farther away to warmth and life.

“When a star ages and brightens, the habitable zone moves outward and you’re basically giving a second wind to a planetary system,” said Ramses M. Ramirez, a member of the research team from the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell.

Simply put, just as thriving microbial ecosystems have been found 800 m (2,623 ft) beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, primitive life can also begin on icy celestial bodies like Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons when their surface temperatures increase, thanks to the red giant solar activity.

Illustration of the changing habitable zone in the Solar System, as the Sun ages. Credit: Cornell University
Illustration of the changing habitable zone in the Solar System, as the Sun ages. Credit: Cornell University

A Bright Future

But is this life sustainable? “For stars that are like our Sun, but older, such thawed planets could stay warm up to half a billion years. That’s no small amount of time,” Ramirez said. These new organisms will prosper, progress, and—conceivably—persist. As they say: “life finds a way,” and “life goes on.”

Following through on this scenario, Earth will be transformed into an incandescent cinder due to its close proximity to the evolved, red giant sun. Earth will be unlivable.

But because this same phenomenon will have thawed nearby frozen worlds, we can consider the possibility of moving to one of these reborn planets to extend human existence. Assuming, of course, that we’re still around and haven’t evolved to near god-like mentality—or, conversely, devolved into comfortable mindlessness.

Discovering alien life forms? Migrating to another planet? These won’t be happening in the near future with our dependable Sun in its peak of good health. But it’s a possibility we can all look forward to a few billion years from now.

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