“Extremely Extreme Life” –Neutron Star, Pulsar and Black-Hole Planets

Neutron Star


“Perhaps the most likely scenario for ‘life’ near a neutron star or black hole involves colonization … by robotic missions from a civilization around another nearby star,” astronomer James Cordes at Cornell University, told The Daily Galaxy. Cordes’ research focus includes neutron stars, pulsars, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “Such a mission,” he notes, “would be very costly and might not be warranted given the power of remote sensing.  However, an ancient but advanced civilization might afford such a luxury.” 

Planets might also exist around black holes

“We have known since the 1990s that planets exist around pulsars,” says Harvard’s chief astronomer, Avi Loeb, which are extraordinarily dense objects born out of the violent explosions of stars. “It’s reasonable to assume that planets might also exist around black holes, which, perhaps surprisingly, have a much weaker impact on their environment than pulsars.”

Super extremophiles that have evolved?

“We certainly know that planets exist around a few neutron stars, most notably the millisecond pulsar B1257+12 discovered in the early 1990s by Alex Wolszczan and demonstrated to have two planets with Earth-like masses,” continued Cordes in his email to The Daily Galaxy.  “As people have said, there is no beach front property on these planets, let alone a place to be protected from the cosmic rays emitted by the pulsar. Such neutron stars have had a tortured history involving a supernova explosion, a standard pulsar phase with emission of high energy particles, X-rays, and gamma-rays, followed by accretion of million-degree gas from a companion not unlike the Sun. The planets in fact are likely to have been formed out of some of the gas that wasn’t accreted by the neutron star. Who knows, but maybe there are some super extremophiles that have evolved under such circumstances but the prospects seem dim. 

“There are other venues where an ordinary star like the Sun is more distant from a companion that has exploded and formed a neutron star and black hole,” continued Cordes. “Any primordial planets around the Sun-like star would have to have survived the blast wave from its exploding companion; with enough distance, the planets themselves may have remained bound to the star but there biospheres probably didn’t. Given time, they might recover.   It is also possible that the binary star system becomes unbound in the explosion, sending the Sun-like star off on its own.”

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Inhabited planets, says Loeb, might exist around the black holes that lie at the cores of most galaxies. It’s even possible that life may form on some of these planets, given that organisms on Earth have adapted to extreme conditions, including boiling heat, freezing cold, and acidic, highly salty and even radioactive environments.”

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, harbors a black hole Sgr A* (Sgr stands for Sagittarius), with an innermost stable circular orbit that’s about the size of the orbit of Mercury. The downside to life near a black hole, observes Loeb, is the heat released by accreting supermassive black holes, posing an existential threat to civilizations residing at the centers of galaxies.

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In a paper with John Forbes, of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Loeb showed that a significant fraction of all planets in the universe are vulnerable to their atmospheres being stripped or their oceans being boiled off as a result of having been close to an active galactic nucleus sometime during their lives.

Milky Way harbors one- billion neutron stars

But what life on a planet orbiting a pulsar? Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way contains an estimated 1 billion neutron stars, of which about 200,000 are pulsars –neutron stars of only 10 to 30 kilometers in diameter with enormous magnetic fields, that accrete matter and regularly burst out large amounts of X-rays and other energetic particles. So far, 3000 pulsars have been studied and only 5 pulsar planets have been found. In 1992, the first exoplanets ever were discovered around pulsar PSR B1257+12.

In December of 2017, The Daily Galaxy reported that it is theoretically possible that habitable planets exist around pulsars. Such planets must have an enormous atmosphere that converts the deadly X-rays and high energy particles of the pulsar into heat. This was the conclusion of the paper by astronomers Alessandro Patruno (Leiden University and ASTRON) and Mihkel Kama (Leiden University and Cambridge University) who suggested that there could nonetheless be life in the vicinity of these stars.

It is the first time that astronomers have tried to calculate so-called habitable zones near neutron stars. The calculations show that the habitable zone around a neutron star can be as large as the distance from Earth to the sun.

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For life to survive the planet must be a Super-Earth

An important premise is that 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.

The astronomers studied the pulsar PSR B1257+12 about 2300 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. They used the Chandra Space Telescope, which is specially made to observe X-rays. Three planets orbit the pulsar. Two of them are super-Earths with a mass of four to five times the Earth. The planets orbit close enough around the pulsar to warm up.

“According to our calculations, the temperature of the planets might be suitable for the presence of liquid water on their surface,” said Patruno. “Though we don’t know yet if the two super-Earths have the right, extremely dense atmosphere.”

Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via James Cordes, Netherlands Research School for Astronomy and Scientific American

Image credit at the top of the page: Neutron star via Shutterstock license.

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