Astronomers discovered a giant planet that survived the brutal death of its star

An artist’s rendering shows what it might have looked like as the star died and its Jupiter-like planet survived.

W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Our sun has a time limit. It’ll reach the end of its life around 5 billion years from now. What will our solar system look like after the sun’s death throes? Astronomers found a distant solar system that hints at the fate of the planets in ours. Earth will probably get whacked, but Jupiter might survive.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature details a Jupiter-like planet in a Jupiter-like orbit around a dead, white dwarf star. The system is located near the center of the Milky Way and its discovery via the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii shows that some of the planets in our own system could continue to exist even after our star goes through its inevitable end-of-life tantrum in the far distant future.

“This evidence confirms that planets orbiting at a large enough distance can continue to exist after their star’s death,” said lead author Joshua Blackman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “Given that this system is an analog to our own solar system, it suggests that Jupiter and Saturn might survive the sun’s red giant phase, when it runs out of nuclear fuel and self-destructs.”

Our sun is expected to move through a few phases when it dies. It will expand into a red giant, a phase NASA describes as “typically the most violent time in a star’s life.” This is when Earth will take a beating and become uninhabitable and likely destroyed.  

Next up, the sun will settle into its white dwarf form as a dead star that is cooling and fading. That’s the kind of star the astronomers spotted the Jupiter-like planet orbiting. Keck Observatory shared a video animation of what that distant solar system and its survivor planet may have experienced.

Co-author David Bennett of the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center suggested a move to a moon of Jupiter and Saturn might be worth considering. That assumes humanity is still around. It means our long-term ambitions for interplanetary life should include a look at some of Jupiter’s tempting moons, like Europa, the target of an upcoming NASA mission.

Moving to Jupiter’s neighborhood wouldn’t solve all our problems. As Bennett pointed out, “…we would not be able to rely on heat from the sun as a white dwarf for very long.”

Some previous research, including a 2020 paper describing a giant planet that dodged destruction by its own star, show that survival is a possibility despite these star’s tendencies to go out in a blaze of glory. Scientists are still working out just how common or rare this might be.

Our sun’s demise is not a pressing problem for humanity, but it’s not a bad idea to think ahead. An extremely optimistic, sci-fi-inspired vision might see a far-future human civilization reaching out to live not just beyond Earth and Mars and even Jupiter, but all the way into other solar systems long before our planet becomes toast.

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