Celestial Archaeology

Yes, really, there is such a thing, and it is important to science fiction. Here’s why.

Whenever we discuss the possibility of life on other planets, or even the likelihood of finding other, albeit empty, Earth-like planets in other solar systems, we are very short of actual data. Telescopes are now doing a wonderful job of discovering Jupiter-like planets orbiting other stars, but small, rocky planets like ours are much harder to see.

This is where the archaeology comes in. The evolution of stars is a well-studied part of cosmology. We know that one day our own sun will probably end up as a white dwarf. For us that’s far in the future, but many white dwarf stars already exist in our galaxy. If they were once surrounded by a collection of rocky planets like Earth then some evidence of the existence of those planets should still be visible.

That is the theory behind a study by a team of astronomers headed by Dr Jay Farihi of Leicester University. Their fascinating conclusion is that at least 3%, and possibly as many as 20%, of all white dwarf stars studied once had rocky planets circling them. Obviously those planets may have been more like Mars than Earth, but it is still a very promising sign.

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5 Responses to Celestial Archaeology

  1. Fabio says:

    Really fascinating – will be studying it soon for a story I’m sketching here.

  2. Daniel Spector says:

    It now appears almost certain we don’t have to worry about our sun going white dwarf:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=star-set-to-collide-with-solar-syst-2010-03

    • Cheryl says:

      We’ll all be living in a virtual world in Charlie’s Stross’s laptop by then anyway.

      • Kendall says:

        I was all set to congratulate you on having a couple of non-world-ending, relatively upbeat cosmology items this week (this and lightning-on-Saturn) . . . but then Daniel Spector had to comment!

        Thank you for pointing out how we’ll survive the catastrophe, at least. 😉

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