Astronomers bring a new hope to find 'Tatooine' planets

Astronomers could discover a plethora of planets around binary star systems stars that rotate around each other -- by measuring with high precision how stars move around each other, looking for disturbances exerted by possible exoplanets. 

So explains new research, "Survival of Planets Around Shrinking Stellar Binaries," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences, July 9, by Diego J. Munoz, Cornell postdoctoral researcher, and Dong Lai, professor of astronomy.

What once was fictional as young Skywalker saw the double suns from Tatooine is astronomical reality four decades later. Normal binary suns orbit each other every eight to 100 days, and the Kepler telescope easily can detect those exoplanets as they transit each sun.

Trouble starts in compact binary sun systems  where sibling suns move closer together  making it difficult for the most advanced telescopes to find them. Essentially, for Kepler and other telescopes, the planetary orbital plane of these double suns and their accompanying planets might be out of whack or misaligned rendering them invisible to us. "The current observational strategy inevitably misses a population of Tatooine planets, but future observations may reveal their existence," said Munoz.

NASA's Kepler telescope monitors star brightness in a Milky Way region near the constellation Cygnus, the swan. Measuring photons, Kepler detects lower light values  and thus, a planetary transit.

Munoz explains that suns in the close binary system likely were once standard systems that have lost energy and shrunk, bringing the suns closer together. As the sibling sun's distance decreases, the orbits of that system's planets become misaligned, rendering it impossible for the Kepler telescope to detect planets  which no longer cross in the front of the suns.

Munoz and Lai suggest scouting for exoplanet-caused disturbances for compact binary star systems, to determine a new population of circumbinary planets. Said Munoz: "Since this type of 'compact' binary is very common, it had been very puzzling that no planets had been detected."

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and by NASA.

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The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Cornell University. The original item was written by Blaine Friedlander.

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