Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Habitable Worlds Around Binary Star Systems might not match Sci-fi

It's hard to talk about planets in binary (dual) star systems without mentioning Star Wars: A New Hope.  The famous scene of Luke Skywalker standing and looking off into the distance while two suns appear near the horizon is iconic.  However, there's a problem with that iconic scene.  The problem is a not full-fledged error, just an unlikelihood: both suns appear as the same size in the sky in very close proximity to each other.  The reason this is unlikely is due to the two types of planetary orbits in binary star systems: s-type and p-type.  A planet in either type of binary system would rarely see both suns as the same size in the sky and that close to each other, even if the suns are the same size.

S-type is the name for the orbit of a planet that revolves around just one of the two stars within a binary system. P-type is the name for the orbit of a planet that revolves around both stars within a binary system, having a common barycenter (or center of mass) with the suns as the suns orbit around each other.[001]

S-type orbits are interesting, but for this article, I'll cover P-type because this is more interesting to me when talking about Habitable Zones, particularly where the suns have similar masses.  Of course, even with p-type orbits, there exist many possible varieties for how the suns can orbit each other.

The ability of a planet to maintain liquid water depends on the interaction between stellar radiation and the top of its atmosphere.  Also, that interaction is complicated in a binary system.  There can be substantial difference in energy received by the dual suns.  Sometimes both suns appear side by side in the sky, providing maximum energy.   However, when one sun is eclipsed by the other, the amount of energy is lessened due to the closer sun blocking the stellar radiation from its partner.[001]

In either case, this variation in stellar radiation can limit how small a planet's orbit can be around the dual suns and still be capable of harboring life.   As stated in Calculating the Habitable Zone of Binary Start Systems II: P-Type Binaries:
This interaction strongly depends on the stellar spectral energy distributions implying that stars with different energy distributions will contribute differently to the absolute incident flux at the top of the planet’s atmosphere.[001]
Even with all of these factors, planet formation within the Habitable Zone of a binary system would be similar to that of a singular star system.[001]

Common binary system and P-type orbit
Two suns of similar mass with elliptical orbits around a common barycenter
Another common binary system and P-type orbit
   Two suns of similar mass in the same orbit around a common barycenter

Where two suns are of the same size, their location to the planet can vary greatly depending on the size of their orbit around their common barycenter.  If there is a wide orbit, it is safe to assume that one sun will provide more energy than the other sun which is farther away.  In this case, the further sun would appear smaller in size within the sky, even though both suns are of the same mass.  The graphics above suggest why the iconic Star Wars scene isn't likely accurate.  The scene is possible maybe one or two times per year if the suns are in similar orbits which are tight and circular; or in rare instances where the suns have elliptical orbits and the planet just happens to be in the right place at the right time.


Close up of Alpha Centauri A and B, NASA photo
Here's a close up of Alpha Centauri A and B. Their distance from each other can be as much as 11 AU's, which would make a type-p planetary orbit so large, that habitable planets would be unlikely.  Planets have been discovered in type-s orbits around Alpha Centauri B and their sibling Proxima Centauri.

HZ reference:
N. Haghighipour, L. Kaltenegger, The Astrophysical Journal, 777 (Nov., 2013) 166, arXiv:1306.2890 [astro-ph.EP], Calculating the Habitable Zone of Binary Star Systems II: P-Type Binaries 

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