One Planet, Two Stars: A System More Common Than Previously Thought

by Shannon Hall on September 4, 2014

An artist's conception of a circumbinary planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

An artist’s conception of a circumbinary planet. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / T. Pyle

There are few environments more hostile than a planet circling two stars. Powerful tidal forces from the stars can easily destroy the rocky building blocks of planets or grind a newly formed planet to dust. But astronomers have spotted a handful of these hostile worlds.

A new study is even suggesting that these extreme systems exist in abundance, with roughly half of all exoplanets orbiting binary stars.

NASA’s crippled Kepler space telescope is arguably the world’s most successful planet hunter, despite the sudden end to its main mission last May. For nearly four years, Kepler continuously monitored 150,000 stars searching for tiny dips in their light when planets crossed in front of them.

As of today, astronomers have confirmed nearly 1,500 exoplanets using Kepler data alone. But Kepler’s database is immense. And according to the exoplanet archive there are over 7,000 “Kepler Objects of Interest,” dubbed KOIs, that might also be exoplanets.

There are a seeming endless number of questions waiting to be answered. But one stands out: how many exoplanets circle two stars? Binary stars have long been known to be commonplace — about half of the stars in the Milky Way are thought to exist in binary systems.

A team of astronomers, led by Elliott Horch from Southern Connecticut State University, has shown that stars with exoplanets are just as likely to have a binary companion. In other words, 40 to 50 percent of the host stars are actually binary stars.

“It’s interesting and exciting that exoplanet systems with stellar companions turn out to be much more common than was believed even just a few years ago,” said Horch in a news release.

The research team made use of the latest technology, speckle imaging, to take a second look at KOI stars and search for any companion stars. In using this technique, astronomers obtain rapid images of a small portion of the sky surrounding the star. They then combine the images using a complex set of algorithms, which yields a final picture with a resolution better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Speckle imaging allows astronomers to detect companion stars that are up to 125 times fainter than the target, but only a small distance away (36,000 times smaller than the full Moon). For the majority of Kepler stars, this equates to finding a companion within 100 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth.

The team was surprised to find that roughly half of their targets had companion stars.

“An interesting consequence of this finding is that in the half of the exoplanet host stars that are binary we can not, in general, say which star in the system the planet actually orbits,” said coauthor Steve B. Howell from the NASA Ames Research Center.

The new findings, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, further advance our need to understand these exotic systems and the harrowing environments they face.

About 

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

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