Even Near Pulsars, Life May Find a Way

By Bill Andrews | December 21, 2017 12:15 pm
pulsar

(Credit: NASA)

Exoplanets have dominated astronomy news so much in recent years, some people are getting sick of them. It’s funny to think that their existence has only been confirmed for 25 years. Before astronomers announced in 1992 that pulsar B1257+12 had a couple of planets in tow, the idea of planets existing beyond our solar system was just that, an idea. It made sense, but no one had ever seen any.

The not-so-secret motivation behind exoplanet research nowadays is the hope of one day finding an Earth twin, a world that could — or even does — support life. Pulsars are radiation-spewing monsters, so the first exoplanets couldn’t possibly support life, and they’ve gradually faded from the spotlight.

But a new paper in Astronomy & Astrophysics suggests we shouldn’t have been so hasty.

Pulsar Protection

The most exciting exoplanet finds are those that orbit within their host star’s habitable zone, an area at just the right distance from the star to allow for liquid surface water and thus, potentially life. The paper’s authors, two astronomers at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, suggest that pulsars have their own habitable zones — surprising, given the harsh X-rays and other radiation that such stars emit.

But, if a planet is big enough — some one to 10 times Earth’s mass — and it has an atmosphere at least 1 million times as thick as Earth’s, then it might just cut it as habitable even around a pulsar. The idea is that the enormous atmosphere would act as a shield for the planet’s surface, absorbing the deadly radiation while still allowing for enough heat to melt water. And a bigger world, preferably with a decent magnetic field, is necessary to hold on to that atmosphere over long enough time scales.

So not only are pulsar planets in general potentially habitable — the OG pulsar planets specifically may be. The paper looked at B1257+12’s three planets, and found that all three could be in their star’s habitable zone, with the two bigger ones fully compatible with habitable conditions — as far as we know, of course. We don’t have enough data to tell for sure.

Life Finds a Way

This is cool not just for the historical curiosity involved (the very first exoplanets discovered might just be habitable!), but also for what it says about habitability in general. Even the universe’s death traps could be survivable!

Life is a hardy thing on Earth, found even in the harshest environments — it doesn’t need much. If even pulsars can host habitable planets, it looks like the odds for life existing elsewhere in the cosmos just got that much better.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    some one to 10 times Earth’s mass — and it has an atmosphere at least 1 million times as thick as Earth’s” allowing no organic chemistry to constitute life. An atmospheric mass/area of a 570 miles thickness of lead is insanity. The terrestrial diamond stability zone under rock is only 100 miles beneath your brogans.

    Magnetic field? The core pressure would render everything a solid until accretion heat and radioactive decay cooked up an electron Fermi-degenerate Hell. 100 ktesla rewrites the rules for chemical bonding.

  • OWilson

    “The not-so-secret motivation behind exoplanet research nowadays is the hope of one day finding an Earth twin, a world that could — or even does — support life”

    I would argue that it is the godless that are seeking to stamp out religious philosophy, once and for all! :)

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      I enjoy what God does to children re genetic defects, cancer, starvation, disease, and molestation. I admire alms collections that fuel His passions. L. Ron Hubbard simplified process by directly targeting wallets, though look at the imposed dialectic burden, ontological confusions vs. epistemically suspect beliefs

      • OWilson

        True, but “97% of all scientists”, according to the Global Warming Bible Teachings, and their followers, believe that if we fork over $trillions to the Holy Temple of The United Nations, they will smile down on the Earth and “Heal the Planet”!

        United Nations org = Vatican org

        • Erik Bosma

          Read a little Kurt Vonnegut. Life on Earth is just a scam.

          • OWilson

            When I want fiction, I tune in to the Fake News Media! :)

        • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

          Climatology is dead,
          DOI:10.1038/s41467-017-02082-2
          killed by observed facts.

    • Ken Albertsen

      So, OWilson, that’s your chosen belief system. Your choice. For me, I find much more freedom and wonderment in science and nature – than in any man-made deist stories. To each his own, I guess. Just don’t go and harm others in your zeal for your belief system. Thanks.

      • OWilson

        Ah, thank you for your arrogant, presumptive, but pathetic, and totally inaccurate attempt to define my belief system, from one sarcastic line with a smiley on the end! :)

        No wonder we have wars! :)

        I don’t give money to churches or to other true believer snake oil salesmen like Al Gore or the third world tin pot dictators at the U.N., a failed Peace organization who claim they can change the climate in a hundred years, or so!

        I leave that to the needy sheep! :)

  • Mau Pham

    Or life might survive in deep caves, whose thick roofs shield radiation (as might happen in our Moon) ! So, no need for that thick atmosphere !

  • Erik Bosma

    The harshest environments on Earth are not necessarily even close to being as harsh as environments anywhere else.

  • Ken Albertsen

    There must be a plethora of other forms of life in the universe. I play a game where I look at certain tech developments on Earth, and imagine the odds that such items existing on other places with intelligent life. Most things would be commonly found, but such items as golf clubs, guitars and trumpets would be extremely rare.

    • Mau Pham

      Ken:

      How is “intelligence” defined by life on Earth ? Golf clubs, guitars, trumps ? Smart phones ? Taxes ?

      Are creatures elsewhere in the universe less intelligent because they just cuddle each other ?

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