For exoplanet fans, this week has been an exciting one, with some amazing new discoveries being announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas – our galaxy is brimming with planets, probably billions, and the smallest known planets have been found (again), with one about the size of Mars. But that’s not all; it was also announced that Kepler has found not one but two more planets orbiting binary stars!
The two star systems are Kepler-34 and Kepler-35; they consist of double stars which orbit each other and are about 4,900 and 5,400 light-years from Earth. The two new planets, Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b, each orbit one of these pairs of stars and are both about the size of Saturn. Since they orbit fairly close to their stars, they are not in the habitable zones; Kepler 34-b completes an orbit in 289 days and Kepler-35b in 131 days. It’s more the fact that they orbit double stars that makes them so interesting.
This is now the third planet found in a binary star system. The first, Kepler-16b, was nicknamed Tatooine as it was reminiscent of the world orbiting two suns in the Star Wars films. Until recently, it was unknown if any such star systems had planetary companions. It was considered possible, although unlikely, and remained only a theory. But now, the view is that there may indeed be a lot of them out there, just as planets are now apparently common around single stars. That’s good news for planet-hunters, as most stars in our galaxy are binaries.
According to William Welsh of San Diego State University who participated in the study, “This work further establishes that such ‘two sun’ planets are not rare exceptions, but may in fact be common, with many millions existing in our galaxy. This discovery broadens the hunting ground for systems that could support life.”
Eric B. Ford, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Florida, stated: “We have long believed these kinds of planets to be possible, but they have been very difficult to detect for various technical reasons. With the discoveries of Kepler-16b, 34b and 35b, the Kepler mission has shown that the galaxy abounds with millions of planets orbiting two stars.”
The hope now is that Kepler will continue until 2016 to be able to further refine its findings so far. That will require a mission extension, but scientists involved are optimistic they will get it.
According to Ford, “Astronomers are practically begging NASA to extend the Kepler mission until 2016, so it can characterize the masses and orbits of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone. Kepler is revolutionizing so many fields, not just planetary science. It would be a shame not to maximize the scientific return of this great observatory. Hopefully common sense will prevail and the mission will continue.”
The study was published January 11, 2012 in the journal Nature (payment or subscription required for access to full article).
See also PhysOrg.com for a good overview of the new findings.