Because Earth is the only planet known to harbor life as we know it, researchers have typically focused on planetary systems similar to our own when searching for extraterrestrial life.
But new research suggests that planetary systems form differently around binary stars than around solo stars like the Sun — and that these differences could affect the potential of a binary star system to sustain life. Nearly 50% of all sun-sized stars are binary stars, and if the team’s theory is confirmed, it could double the number of systems researchers might want to probe.
“The result is exciting, as the search for extraterrestrial life will be equipped with several extremely powerful new instruments in the years to come,” said study lead author Jes Kristian Jørgensen, professor of astrophysics and planetary sciences. at the University’s Niels Bohr Institute. of Copenhagen, said in a statement. “This reinforces the importance of understanding how planets form around different types of stars. Such results can identify places that would be particularly interesting to probe for the existence of life.”
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The study was based on observations of the young binary star system NGC 1333-IRAS2A using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescopes in Chile. This system, located about 1,000 light-years away, is shrouded in a disk of gas and dust that could one day create a planetary system. The team then created simulations that allowed them to quickly step back and forward through the system’s life cycle.
They discovered that the movement of gas and dust was not continuous. “At certain times, usually for relatively short periods of 10 to 100 years every thousand years, the movement becomes very strong,” the researchers said in a statement. “The binary star becomes 10 to 100 times brighter, until it returns to its normal state.”
The team hypothesized that at certain points in the stars’ orbits around each other, their gravity pulls material from the disk of gas and dust onto the surfaces of the star. stars. In turn, these bursts of falls trigger flickering jets erupting from the disc.
“Falling material will trigger significant heating,” second author Rajika L. Kuruwita, postdoctoral researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute, said in a statement. “These explosions will tear the disk apart with gas and dust. As the disk rebuilds, the explosions may still influence the structure of the subsequent planetary system.”
Solo stars like the sun probably wouldn’t have gone through a similar process, which likely means planets form differently around solo stars than around binary stars, the team said.
The researchers also plan to study the possible role of comets in the formation of the planetary system, as comets carry organic molecules that could revive extraterrestrial life on an otherwise barren planet.
While the team hopes to continue their observations with ALMA, they look forward to exploiting the next generation of telescopes, including the James Webb Space TelescopeEurope’s Extremely Large Telescope and the Square Kilometer Array, all of which will enter service within the next five years.
“Combining the different sources will provide a wealth of exciting results,” Jørgensen said.
The study was published May 23 in the journal Nature (opens in a new tab).