Red Giants and Planet Formation

This article will explore the potential for life to develop in the outer planetary systems of red giant stars.  It will then discuss the death-throes of red giant stars, and whether the subsequent outward thrust of stellar material might provide another mechanism for free-floating planets in interstellar space.

Exoplanets have already been found orbiting extremely old stars, one some 11 billion years old (1).  This star, named Kepler-444, makes our own Sun, at a mere 4.6 billion years old, seem like an infant in comparison.  The implication of this is that life could readily have got going early on in the history of the universe, long before the birth of our Sun.  Furthermore, if these exoplanets were to benefit from a relatively stable stellar environment during that long timescale, then the chances of life evolving into higher forms are statistically more probable.  Scale this up across trillions of stars, and the possibilities become clear.

Our own Sun has a shorter lifespan than this.  Its main sequence life is expected to last another 5 billion years, by which point it will have burned up all of its hydrogen fuel.  Then it will swell into a red giant star, before collapsing down into a white dwarf.  For Earth, this post-main sequence (post-MS) phase of the Sun’s life will be pretty disastrous.  The Sun’s expansion to a red giant will swallow the Earth up.  However, a less catastrophic outcome might be expected for planets in the outer solar system, beyond, say, Jupiter.  In fact, their climates might significantly improve – for a while, at least.  The habitable zone of the solar system will expand outwards, along with the expanding star.  Saturn’s largest moon Titan, for instance, might benefit greatly from a far milder climate – as long as it can hang onto its balmy atmosphere in the red heat of the dying Sun.


The expansion of habitable zones, as late main sequence stars become hydrogen-starved, offers the potential for life to make a new start in previously frigid environments.  The burning question here is how long these outer planets have to get life going before the red giant then withdraws into its cold white shell.  A study published last year by scientists at the Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute attempted to answer this question (2), choosing to examine yellow dwarf stars whose sizes range from half that of the Sun, to approximately twice its mass.  They argue that the larger stars along this sequence could well have larger rocky terrestrial planets in their outer planetary systems than our Sun does (at least, insofar as we know it does!)  This is because the density of materials in their initial proto-planetary disks should be that much greater for larger stars (3).  Larger Earth-like planets in outer regions mean more potential for stable atmospheric conditions during the post-MS period under consideration.  In other words, the growing red giant (which is shedding its mass pretty wildly at this point) would not necessarily blast away an outer planet’s atmosphere if that rocky planet had sufficient gravity to hold onto it.

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