[MUSIC PLAYING] LISA KALTENEGGER: In our search for life in the universe, one question we're asking is where it is. How prevalent is it? Is it everywhere? Is it nowhere?
And so in this paper, what's really, really special is that we've identified a place where nobody thought to look before, and that is around a long, dead star, its exposed core. And we just found the first planet around such a core that we call the white dwarf.
That planet is big. It's a gas planet like Jupiter. But if that one exists, maybe smaller ones can also exist, smaller ones like our own Earth. And it would be incredibly interesting to figure out whether life could survive or start again.
RYAN MACDONALD: This question, could there be life around a star that has died? And it has deep philosophical implications for our own future because the sun is not going to last forever. Billions of years from now, the sun will eventually throw off its outer layers and transform into a white dwarf. But this might not be the end. If we can use our telescopes on the Earth and in space to find signs of life around dead stars, I think, in many ways, that gives us renewed hope for the future, knowing that life can always find a way, life can always survive and thrive in even the most dramatic and strange circumstances we can imagine.
LISA KALTENEGGER: Our study really identified where NASA's flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, can easiest find signs of life if they exist.
RYAN MACDONALD: And we only have to get lucky once. We only have to find one more planet beyond the Earth that has signs of life before we can start to figure out that life itself is a common phenomena in the universe. Perhaps we are not special. Perhaps we are just one of many forms of life all throughout our galaxy and even beyond.
LISA KALTENEGGER: And I would add to this. Hopefully, we are not special, and we are at the verge of finding that out.
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A rocky planet orbiting a white dwarf—a star in a phase after death—would present an excellent opportunity to search for molecules that signify life using the James Webb Space Telescope, say Lisa Kaltenegger, director of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute, and Ryan MacDonald, a research associate there.