Scientists Say Habitable Planets May Be Orbiting Pulsars

Wednesday, 20 December 2017 - 10:27AM
Astronomy
Space
Alien Life
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Wednesday, 20 December 2017 - 10:27AM
Scientists Say Habitable Planets May Be Orbiting Pulsars
Image credit: NASA
Every new space discovery we make seems to reinforce one thing: the universe is a lot more complicated than the Drake Equation led us to believe.

For example: the third variable of the equation is "Average number of habitable planets per star." Until now, no one would have thought to include neutron stars in that number, let alone active pulsars. Turns out we may have been wrong.

For background, pulsars are a type of neutron star that radiates a stream of energy, sort of like a lighthouse.

They're born when a normal star expends its fuel and collapses in on itself, creating a super-dense little sphere that rotates extremely fast (a "slow" neutron star rotates only once per second, while a "fast" one rotates in milliseconds) and possesses an extremely strong magnetic field (between 100 million and 1 quadrillion times the strength of Earth's).

To get a sense of just how extreme a pulsar is, imagine twice the mass of our sun squeezed into a space about 12 to 15 miles in diameter—the size of an Earth city.

The energy a pulsar emits can range from radio waves to gamma rays, but the key feature of a pulsar is its tendency to expel huge bursts of X-rays and other particles, which can absolutely destroy life on any planet unlucky enough to be orbiting it. 

However, a new study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics has broken new ground by attempting to calculate the "habitable zone" for planets orbiting a pulsar: it turns out that the zone can be "as large as the distance from Earth to the sun," though any planet in that area will need a lot of mass and a thick atmosphere:

Opening quote
"...the planet must be a super-Earth with a mass between one and 10 times that of the Earth. A smaller planet will lose its atmosphere within a few thousand years. Furthermore, the atmosphere must be a million times as thick as that of the Earth. The conditions on the pulsar planet surface might resemble those of the deep sea."
Closing quote


If life can survive in the extreme conditions surrounding a pulsar, then who knows where else it can find a foothold? We're not counting out anywhere, except that ancient, evil-looking black hole that turned out to be older than light itself.
 
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Scientists Say Habitable Planets May Be Orbiting Pulsars
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