Don’t you love the way the cosmos keeps us from getting too comfortable with our ideas? The Hubble Constant (H0), which tells us about the rate of expansion of the universe, is still a hot issue because observations from both the Hubble Space Telescope and JWST don’t tally with what the European Space Agency’s Planck mission concluded from its data on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

How exactly do we fine tune the standard model of cosmology to make sense of this? The so-called Hubble Tension is hardly the only issue raised by the acquisition of new and better data, although it may be the biggest. All kinds of questions linger about what dark energy is, not to mention dark matter. Of course, challenging observations are hardly limited to cosmology. Dialing down to the stellar level, new work has emerged challenging the way white dwarf stars evolve. Contrary to all expectation, some white dwarfs seem to stop cooling, and can indeed live to a satisfying old age.

A white dwarf is what is left after a star goes through its red giant phase and sheds its outer layers. After all, most stars (over 95 percent) don’t have the mass to become a neutron star or black hole. A star like the Sun will one day enlarge, then contract, casting off its outer layers to form a planetary nebula and leaving a white dwarf behind. Planets in our inner system would likely be engulfed in the red giant phase, but get out around the asteroid belt and the chances of survival are high, with subsequent outward migration in the white dwarf period because of the star losing mass.

Sirius B is a white dwarf 8.6 light years away, and there are eight of the objects among the 100 nearest star systems. They should be cooling down because fusion no longer occurs, with the dense plasma in the star’s interior freezing so that the star solidifies from the center out. The cooling process itself can take billions of years, which is why I find these objects so appealing. They’re another example of an exotic place where planets can orbit and conceivably produce some kind of life, and recent studies have uncovered that many of them show signs of atmospheric ‘pollution,’ meaning they’ve ingested materials near them. As many as 50 percent show metals in their spectra.

Image: This is an artist’s impression of a white dwarf (burned-out) star accreting rocky debris left behind by the star’s surviving planetary system. It was observed by Hubble in the Hyades star cluster. At lower right, an asteroid can be seen falling toward a Saturn-like disk of dust that is encircling the dead star. Infalling asteroids pollute the white dwarf’s atmosphere with silicon. These dead stars are located 150 light-years from Earth in a relatively young star cluster, Hyades, in the constellation Taurus. The star cluster is only 625 million years old. The white dwarfs are being polluted by asteroid-like debris falling onto them. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

Finding a debris disk around a white dwarf is one thing, but planets are another matter. Only a few have so far been identified. There have been white dwarf surveys to look for surviving gas giants in such systems but their numbers are low. What we have found, though, is intriguing. WD 1856+534 b, for instance, orbits in a remarkably tight orbit and raises further questions about orbital evolution. A planetesimal designated SDSS J1228+1040 b likewise appears in a tight orbit within a white dwarf debris disk.

Because the contrast between star and planet in a white dwarf system could be as low as 1:200, according to a new paper, JWST gives us significant capabilities for imaging planets around white dwarfs. Susan Mullally (Space Telescope Science Institute) is lead author of the paper, which appears in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The researchers describe two giant planet candidates orbiting the white dwarfs WD 1202−232 and WD 2105−82. The projected separations are 11.47 and 34.6 AU respectively, and the best take on mass for each is in the range of 1 to 7 Jupiter masses. “If confirmed,” note the authors, “using common proper motion, these giant planets will represent the first directly imaged planets that are similar in age, mass, and orbital separation as the giant planets in our own solar system.”

So we’re getting there as we slowly build our exoplanet catalog around such stars. Even so, the questions seem to be multiplying because of the fact mentioned above: There is a population of white dwarfs along the so-called Q Branch of the Hertzsprung–Russell (H–R) diagram that is maintaining a constant luminosity over billions of years. This would mean there must be a source of energy inhibiting the cooling process.

Here we’re dealing with data from the Gaia satellite, cited in 2019 to announce the discovery of this population of white dwarfs. White dwarf cooling is thought to involve crystallization of core materials into a solid phase. Sihao Cheng (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) and colleagues point to this transition in the 2019 paper:

As a liquid-to-solid phase transition in the white dwarf core, crystallization releases energy through latent heat (e.g., van Horn 1968) and phase separation (e.g., Garcia-Berro et al. 1988; Segretain et al. 1994; Isern et al. 1997), which can indeed create a cooling delay. However, the observed pile-up on the Q branch is higher and narrower than expected from the standard crystallization model (Tremblay et al. 2019, Figure 4), suggesting that there exists a cooling anomaly, i.e., an extra cooling delay in addition to crystallization.

Explaining this phenomenon is the task of a just published paper in Nature from Antoine Bédard (University of Warwick), with Cheng as a co-author. Its hypothesis is that freezing of the interior into a solid state does not produce the expected result, the solidification of the star from the inside out. Instead, crystals formed upon freezing displace heavier liquids downward, a mechanism that releases gravitational energy. This, then, would be the source of the persistent star’s energy, and would constitute, according to Bédard, “a whole new astrophysical phenomenon.” This delay in cooling could mean that we are underestimating the age of some dwarfs by billions of years.

Cheng sees the question of stellar age as central, even if we’re not sure why some white dwarfs take this path and others do not:

“One fascinating aspect of this discovery is that the physics involved is similar to something we observe in daily life: the frozen crystals within the white dwarf star float instead of sink. We might compare their behavior to ice cubes floating in water. Our work will necessitate updates to astronomy textbooks. We hope that it will also prompt astronomers to reassess the methods employed to calculate the age of stellar populations.”

It’s always satisfying to think that our textbooks will need to be updated on a regular basis, for the pace of discovery is accelerating. In this case, something as fundamental as stellar age is up for grabs. Indeed, as the Bédard and Cheng paper notes, this “population of freezing white dwarfs maintains a constant luminosity for a duration comparable with the age of the universe.” These white dwarfs, at least, fall entirely out of the category of ‘dead stars’ and force a healthy re-thinking of our assumptions.

The Mullally paper is “JWST Directly Images Giant Planet Candidates Around Two Metal-polluted White Dwarf Stars,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 962 (15 February 2020), L32 (full text). The 2019 paper discussing the cooling issues in white dwarfs is Cheng et al., “A Cooling Anomaly of High-mass White Dwarfs,” The Astrophysical Journal Vol. 886, No. 2 (25 November 2019), 100 (full text). The new paper on white dwarf cooling is Bédard et al., “Buoyant crystals halt the cooling of white dwarf stars,” Nature 627 (06 March 2024), pp. 286-288 (abstract).