A while back I wrote a series of posts called How planets die.
It was about all the ways planets can be sterilized or destroyed. I even made a “planetary death scale”. Gruesome stuff.
Let’s liven things up with a new mini-series on Second-Chance Planets.
These are planets that get a second chance at life. At first something is off — they are too hot or too cold, or are missing key ingredients for life. But the things change and the planets become habitable.
These are cosmic underdog stories. Planets that get a second chance to win against all odds.
These are the scrappy, lovable planets you’ll want to root for!
Our first second-chance planets start off too cold for life.
They are covered in ice. Think Hoth.
We’re talking icy planets or moons too far from their stars to be warm enough for liquid water.
Way out past the outer edge of the habitable zone.
The habitable zone is the Goldilocks-esque belt of orbits around a star in which a planet could have liquid water on its surface. Not too hot, not too cold. It looks something like this (in very simple terms):
The Sun’s habitable zone extends from inside Earth’s orbit to past Mars’s orbit. (Note: Mars is indeed within the habitable zone — its lack of surface water is probably due to the loss of most of its atmosphere).
The habitable zone is closer around small stars because they are faint, so a planet must be closer-in to have the right temperature (for example, the Trappist-1 system is super compact but its central star is so puny that it has 3 habitable zone planets). And — you guessed it — the habitable zone is farther around more massive, brighter stars.
Of course, liquid water (and maybe life) can exist on planets or moons that are not in the habitable zone. For example, subsurface oceans are thought to exist under the ice crusts of a number of Solar System moons (and possibly on some free-floating planets).
The habitable zone is all about water on planets’ surfaces, and it’s useful in the search for life around other stars. We can’t see down into subsurface oceans on Jupiter’s moons, let alone on exoplanets. It’s life on planets’ surfaces that we can hope to detect.
But the habitable zone is just a snapshot.
Stars evolve. The Sun today is 30% brighter than 4.5 billion years ago. Its habitable zone has been slowly creeping outward, and Earth is perilously close to the inner edge.
Here is how stars like the Sun evolve:
These days the Sun is in its pleasantly-boring main sequence phase. It’s busy burning Hydrogen into Helium in its nuclear furnace of a core. As a whole, the Sun is getting brighter but only very slowly.
In about 7 billion years things will get nuts. The Sun will run out of Hydrogen fuel and puff up into a red giant star the size of Earth’s orbit. Mercury and Venus will fall into the Sun.
Earth is on the cusp: it may be pushed away or it may fall into the Sun. It doesn’t really matter because Earth will be long dead, as the oceans will have boiled away billions of years earlier.
The red giant phase lasts for a few hundred million years. After that, the Sun will shed its outer layers and all that will be left is its core, a white dwarf that won’t do anything except cool off over eons…
Some asteroids and comets will probably crash down and contaminate the outer layers of the white dwarf. Their spectral signatures may be the last signs of the Solar System’s planets.
Jeez, that’s depressing. But there’s a bright side.
As the Sun evolves, the habitable zone evolves along with it.
Since the Sun gets brighter the habitable zone moves outward:
The Sun will be so much brighter as a red giant, its habitable zone will be drastically different than the present-day one. Instead of being centered on the Earth-Mars region, it will be centered on the Jupiter-Saturn region.
It will look something like this:
The Sun doesn’t just jump from the main sequence to the red giant phase. A more complete (and more complicated) graph is included at the bottom of this post.
All told, Jupiter will have about 370 million year span in the habitable zone as the Sun evolves. Saturn will get about 200 million years. This means that….
… Jupiter and Saturn’s large icy moons are second-chance planets!
And they’ve got some nice big ones:
These moons all contain a mix of iron, rock and ice. As I’ve discussed before, Io is the most volcanic object in the Solar System and doesn’t have a ton of water. But all of those other large moons are thought to be very water-rich, and several even have global oceans under a layer of ice (as does Titan):
What will these moons look like when they enter the habitable zone?
Let’s see — they all have a *lot* of water. So as they heat up, their oceans should melt and they’ll become mini-ocean worlds. They could look something like this:
The planets in these moons’ skies would be big. Io is about the same distance from Jupiter as the Moon is from Earth. Except that Jupiter is 40 times bigger than the Moon. So in Io’s sky, Jupiter looks 40 times larger than the full Moon! That’s about 20 degrees across!
These big moons would have abundant liquid water and potentially habitable. Of course, their atmospheres would slowly leak away into space because their gravity isn’t too high, but that process would probably take about as long as the few hundred million years they’ve got in the habitable zone anyway…
Boom! Second-chance planets!
That was a pretty good story, right? We could just stop there.
I want to leverage this idea to build a planetary system in which the star’s evolution is a good thing.
An Ultimate Second-Chance Solar System.
It’s pretty simple. This system has planets in the “normal” habitable zone — during the star’s boring main sequence phase (the phase the Sun is in right now), these are the planets that could have liquid water.
But this system will also have planets on more distant, outer orbits. These will be frozen during the star’s main sequence phase. But they will be in just the right place when the star goes red giant.
Let’s go retro. For the main sequence habitable zone I’ll use good ol’ Ultimate Solar System 1, and for the red giant habitable zone I’ll use Ultimate Solar System 2. Remember those? They had 60 habitable zone planets between them.
Our system looks like this:
It’s tempting to want to build a system with rings of planets like in the Ultimate Engineered Solar System. But I’m not convinced that those will stay stable as the star evolves.
(Side note: I wonder if there is a system without a gap in the middle, in which the habitable zone simply moves outward as the star evolves. There could be a particular type of star for which that happens but if it exists I haven’t found it.)
After the red giant phase, stars like the Sun puff off their outer layers. All that remains are the cores: white dwarfs.
White dwarfs are tiny. They do have a habitable zone (see here) but it’s so close-in that it would take something quite special for a planet to end up there. But crazy things happen, so it’s definitely worth thinking about.
Now, not all stars evolve like the Sun.
This story is different for low-mass stars, some of which evolve so slowly that they won’t become red giants for trillions of years!
Fast-evolving high-mass stars go through so many different phases that, even though the habitable zone jumps around, there would be little time for planets or moons to adjust.
This is why one of the posts in the How planets die series was planets being roasted, toasted and swallowed by their evolving stars.
Questions? Comments? Words of wisdom?
- The How Planets Die series
- The Building the Ultimate Solar System series
- National Geographic’s Atlas of Moons, many of which may become second-chance worlds in about seven billion years.
- Websites of Ramses Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger (director of the Carl Sagan Institute), who studied how the habitable changes as stars evolve. For instance, here is a plot showing the evolution of the habitable zone during the Sun’s asymptotic giant and red giant phases: