Kepler finds a planet in a binary star's habitable zone

By Phil Plait | August 29, 2012 11:16 am

Oh, this is too cool: scientists have found a planet orbiting a binary star (a pair of stars in tight orbit around each other) that is at the right distance to have liquid water! Let me be clear: this planet is much bigger than Earth, and is likely to be a gas giant. So it’s not Earth-like, and probably not itself habitable.

But it might have moons…

[Note: this image is artwork based on the science. Click to tatooineneate.]

OK, first: Kepler is an orbiting telescope that has been staring at one spot in the sky for about three years now. It’s looking at about 100,000 stars. If these stars have planets, and the orbits of these planets are seen edge-on, then they will occasionally pass directly between us and their parent star blocking a little bit of the light. This is called a transit, and if the planet is big enough it can block enough light from the star to be detected by Kepler. So far, 77 planets have been confirmed using Kepler, and over 2000 more have been detected and are awaiting confirmation.

The new discovery deals with a binary star called Kepler-47. It’s about 5000 light years away, which is pretty far for a Kepler system – it’s faint at that distance. Still, the observations look very good, and the conclusions convincing to me.

One of the two stars is very Sun-like, about the same size, temperature, and brightness as our home star. The second is fainter, smaller, and cooler. They comprise an eclipsing binary: their orbit is seen edge-on from Earth, so they pass in front of each other as seen by us as they circle each other. Their orbit is pretty tight: they’re only about 13 million kilometers (8 million miles) from each other, and their orbit is just 7.5 days long.

Two planets were actually found orbiting the stars. Kepler-47b is about 3 times the diameter of the Earth. Its mass isn’t known, but it’s likely 7 – 10 times ours. It’s hot: the orbit is just 50 million km (30 million miles) out, closer than Mercury is to the Sun. It takes about 50 days to orbit.

The second planet, Kepler-47c, is the interesting one. It’s even bigger, 4 – 6 times Earth’s diameter, roughly the size of Uranus, and most likely 20 times our mass. Its orbit is almost exactly the same size as Earth’s, coincidentally, taking 300 days to orbit the binary (its year is shorter than ours because the two stars together have more mass, and therefore more gravity, than the Sun).

Taking into account the orbital size and the physical properties of the stars, the scientists have determined that the planet is at the right distance to be in the stars’ habitable zone: the distance where liquid water could exist on a solid body.

As I pointed out, the planet is probably a gas giant. But it could have moons – in fact, given our own solar system configuration, it seems likely. It’s not crazy to think that these moons, should they exist, might be habitable. That’s amazing.

These two new worlds put the roster of confirmed circumbinary planets (that is, planets orbiting binary stars) to six. And we only just started looking a few years ago! Given the number of stars observed and the planets found, and applying a little statistics, it seems entirely possible that there are millions of such planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

That’s right: millions of possible Tatooines just waiting to be found! And we may yet find them. Finding gas giant planets is far easier than finding their much smaller moons, but one of the goals of exoplanet astronomy is to improve the technology and the techniques to the point where such moons can be detected as well. It may take bigger telescopes and more time, but there is nothing stopping us except our will to do so.

Think of that: we can detect potential Earths around stars quadrillions of kilometers away! And all we have to do is want it enough.


[P.S. If you want to keep up with exoplanet news, there’s a wonderful iPhone/iPad app called Exoplanet that has info, diagrams, and updates when new planets are found. I use it myself and really like it.]

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (50)

  1. Jay29

    So cool. Research like this could be the first step toward one day finding a new home for humanity.

  2. Biggs

    So, when does this mean we get to pick up our power converters at Tosche Station?

  3. Ry

    Would love to hear a writeup of what would theoretically happen if one star should fall into it’s larger sister.

  4. Renee Marie Jones

    Very cool. Makes one wonder if it has a moon with floating islands and blue people.

  5. Hehe, not just floating islands and blue people, but also, how would that affect their views of the world? and what would the planet look like in the sky? Eclipses would be rather interesting too!

  6. Heather

    Artist who visually represents Kepler’s new findings…best.art.job.ever!

  7. Agustín

    Kepler? I thought he died a heap of years ago… :-))
    Jokes apart… Find it cool. Maybe Mankind is not completely hopeless.

  8. carbonUnit

    I’m missing the reference to floating islands/blue people…

    In Star Wars terms, this is more like a combo of Tatooine, with its binary suns and the forest moons Endor or Yavin IV. What an amazing sky such a place must have! The binary suns would presumably eclipse each other. Then you’d have the planet which would dominate the sky and generate some very total eclipses of the suns. They’d have two flavors of night. Betcha any beings there would have interesting clocks/calendars!

  9. mike burkhart

    I knew you would put a Star Wars refernce. You could have also used Krull, a 1983 scifi-sword and sorcery combanation movie, about a planet called Krull thats like Europe in the middle ages fighting an alien called the beast and his army of slayers that have invaded the planet,good movie but it bombed at the box office, Krull orbited two stars called the twin Suns. I think if a planet is in a binary star system then it would recieve twice the radition,heat and light then if it orbited a single star. Also if the planets orbit is inbetwine the stars then it would recieve very little darkness.

  10. J. Wong

    Actually, the NASA post points out that being in the Goldilocks-zone Kepler-47c may itself have liquid water so it may have life without having an Earth-like moon, just not life like us. It may not be habitable by humans, but who knows what kind of life it might hold!

  11. Kieron

    So from Kepler-47c the stars eclipse each other during that weak cycle? Is there a graph on how the surface temp is affected by the stars swinging around each other?

  12. Where’s our Earth, the sequel? Still nothing like home found.

  13. Jess Tauber

    I wonder how fast civilization would evolve on such a moon as might circle the gas giant. Certainly their grasp of orbital dynamics would be enhanced. Took us thousands of years to figure it all out. The two suns would make them understand how light works faster. The gas giant would let them see another planet’s weather up close and personal, so gas flow and atmospheres would be more apparent. I would imagine with all this they’d be ready for science right out of the cave era.

  14. What could be cooler than habitable moons around a gas giant in a systems with two suns and with such a large mercury like planter too? I’d move there.

  15. CR

    carbonUnit @8: It’s a reference to the James Cameron film “Avatar,” wherein an Earth-like moon orbits a Jupiter-like gas giant. The moon, Pandora, has blue-skinned humanoids and a mineral that, when imbedded in rock structures, allows said rocks to ‘float.’

  16. @carbonUnit: The binary suns would presumably eclipse each other. Then you’d have the planet which would dominate the sky and generate some very total eclipses of the suns.

    Depending on the inclination of the moon’s orbit and its orbital radius, it’s possible (or likely) that those eclipses would happen every day.

    Imagine if, like most satellites in our system, the moon is tidally locked to the planet. From the moon’s near hemisphere, the giant planet will appear fixed in the sky; if you’re on the point nearest the planet (the capital city of Omphalos), the giant will always be directly overhead. Imagine the mythology surrounding that looming figure!

    From the near hemisphere, as the moon orbits the planet, you’ll see the sun rise, approach and then appear to pass behind the planet (siesta time?), then hours later it emerges from the other side, sinking toward the horizon.

    Meanwhile, if you live on the far hemisphere, you’ll never see the planet at all! What stories would you hear from travelers who had visited the other half of the world?

    This is so fun to imagine!

  17. Jess Tauber

    Yes, unobtanium is extremely valuable- look how much James Cameron has made off it!

  18. James Evans

    So, when does this mean we get to pick up our power converters at Tosche Station?

    You can waste time with your friends when the chores are done.

  19. carbonUnit

    Oh, duh, Avatar. Haven’t seen that one yet. I couldn’t place the floating islands and all I could think of for blue people were Smurfs! ;)

    The possible dynamics of a moon of that planet are fascinating. If it were close to the planet it would most likely experience periods of darkness on a daily or weekly basis. Much of the time, solar night would not really be dark because of the suns light reflecting off the planet. (Anyone read Asimov & Silverberg’s “Nightfall”? It’s about a planet with six suns. They only all set simultaneously about every 1000 years. Only then do the inhabitants of the planet experience night. When that happens, the people go mad and civilization crashes…) How many of the moons of our gas giants are tidally locked and/or in orbits that frequently get eclipsed by the planet.

    Orbiting a gas giant would also have some interesting consequences as far as tidal forces. Such a moon would be in a shooting gallery, getting hit by comets and asteroids captured by the planet.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    @3. Ry :

    Would love to hear a writeup of what would theoretically happen if one star should fall into it’s larger sister.

    These stars, if close enough, will ultimately spiral in and become a contact binary – a W Ursae majoris star like a giant glowing peanut in the sky – then merge into a single fast spinning with more and larger sunspots, FK Comae Berenices type star. Due to angular momentum and tidal locking factors.

    There was a superb article by Ken Croswell “Dance of the Double Sun” with a marvellous series of illustartions on that in the July 1993 issue of ‘Astronomy’ magazine dealing witha system [ER Vulpeculae] of two almost identical stars to our Sun – if you can find a copy somehow. :-)

    On the positive side an earth-like moon round yonder planet would be a wonder to watch and the skies would be jaw-dropping especially in the planet facing hemisphere. On the not so good side, you’d have a pair of suns that were much more active and then have them evolving and changing fusing and become a single sun of another whole sectral type which would be brighter and shorter-lived. Imagine going from two spottier Suns than ours constantly at maxima exceeding what we have – then one peanut shaped contact binary sun warping and merging over a few thousand years becoming a Sirian type white hot main-sequence Sun! 8)

    Fascinating to contemplate, maybe not so good for life. :-(

    But then who knows?

  21. @13. Jeff Handy : “Where’s our Earth, the sequel?”

    Sequel? We’re still going with our story on Earth the first aren’t we? Don’t want to cut that short now do we? ;-)

    @10. J. Wong :

    Actually, the NASA post points out that being in the Goldilocks-zone Kepler-47c may itself have liquid water so it may have life without having an Earth-like moon, just not life like us. It may not be habitable by humans, but who knows what kind of life it might hold!

    Could just possibly be that’ there’s life already inside Jupiter and the other gas giants in our own solar system – although the high radiation, super strong winds and chemistry makes it dubious.

    Yet there’s been interesting speculations from many science fiction writers already about life inside gas giants such as Jupiter – Arthur C. Clarke in the Space Odyssey series and Ben Bova’s Jupiter novel in his Grand Tour series (click on my name for wiki-link) for instance.

    Such lifeforms would be floating in endless skies of mostly hydrogen and helium so very different lifestyles and natures. Be very hard for them to develop technology you’d think given difficulty of manufacturing plus isolation from the universe above (clouded and hidden – no or little astronomy possible in visible light anyhow) and below. (Atmosphere gets thicker and turns to supercritical high pressure and temperature fluid, so their understanding of geology would be very limited and strange!)

    @6. Heather : “Artist who visually represents Kepler’s new findings…best.art.job.ever!”

    Seconded. :-)

    I love this sort of imaginative space art and there’s a few people such as Lynette R. Cook and David Hardy and even a friend of mine named Gail Glasper whose artworks are absolutely inspirational and splendid. I can imagine these systems really vividily but, alas, can’t paint well myself. Wish I could.

  22. amphiox

    I wonder how fast civilization would evolve on such a moon as might circle the gas giant. Certainly their grasp of orbital dynamics would be enhanced. Took us thousands of years to figure it all out. The two suns would make them understand how light works faster. The gas giant would let them see another planet’s weather up close and personal, so gas flow and atmospheres would be more apparent. I would imagine with all this they’d be ready for science right out of the cave era.

    I wonder though, with two suns in the sky, and a looming giant planet that must surely shine many times brighter than our full moon, what kind of light pollution challenges are they going to have to overcome in order to develop any science of astronomy at all?

  23. Jess Tauber

    Well if the moon is tidally locked with the planet, then the planet-side civilizations will evolve into regressive conservatives who try to annihilate the more progressive, pro-science liberals on the away-facing side, where astronomy flourishes, and, failing that, might attempt browbeating them into submission with substantial cuts in science budget items unrelated to defense. Also one would suspect they’d out-reproduce them, despite all the fun night-life being on the away-face (since birth control would be a no-no).

  24. MarkmBha

    MY QUESTION IS DO WE REALLY WANT TO MOVE FROM EARTH?
    No other planet will be better than the one we have. We must take care of this one!

  25. Hugo

    Okay, that’s pretty damn wow.

    Does anyone know how old this thing is?

  26. I was extremely excited to learn about this new discovery. Hopefully with more confirmations we will be able to establish a ratio of how close a planet can be to binary suns without having an unstable orbit. So far with Kepler-16 and now Kepler-47, it seems that perhaps a planet orbiting the center of gravity of the system over three to three and a half times the distance of the stars from one another is going to be OK. But I guess we’ll see.

  27. James Evans

    Oh, duh, Avatar. Haven’t seen that one yet. I couldn’t place the floating islands and all I could think of for blue people were Smurfs!

    The alternative working title for Avatar was Dances with Smurfs.

  28. andy

    This is probably not the first case of a multi-planet circumbinary system: there have been a few claims previously made for post-common envelope binaries. Several of these have not held up so well to further analysis, but the 2:1 resonant system at NN Serpentis at least appears to satisfy the requirements of dynamical stability that other such systems did not.

  29. But WOULD this planet have moons?

    If I’m not incorrect our understanding is that all these hot Jupiters and other close gas giants are formed at the outskirts of their system and then migrate in. I would assume that’s what’s happened with our Kepler 47b in its Earthlike orbit. But wouldn’t these planets on the move tend to shed their moons as they move inward? And by the time they get there, there’s not exactly a big surplus of Ganymede-style moons floating around, waiting to be picked up.

    Or so goes my thinking. I’d love to be corrected by somebody who, you know, actually knows some physics.

  30. James

    “It’s even bigger, 4 – 6 times Earth’s diameter, roughly the size of Uranus, and most likely 20 times our mass.”

    Not MY anus, Uranus !! :P

    Heh heh…you said Uranus.

  31. amphiox

    Imagine going from two spottier Suns than ours constantly at maxima exceeding what we have – then one peanut shaped contact binary sun warping and merging over a few thousand years becoming a Sirian type white hot main-sequence Sun!

    If these two stars merged, would the result be a Sirian type star? The smaller star is 1/3 the sun’s mass, and the larger one is about the same as the sun’s, so the merger would at most produce a star about 1 1/3 the sun’s mass, while Sirius has twice the sun’s mass.

    (IE, wouldn’t the product of the merger still be a G or maybe F class star?)

  32. amphiox

    It’s interesting that the larger star is estimated to have a mass close to equal to the sun, but is 15% dimmer.

    See http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/discoveries/kepler47bc/

    Does this suggest that the system is younger than ours?

  33. Once more truth is stranger than fiction. A few years ago, if I had read a science fiction story taking place on the habitable moon of a gas giant orbiting a double star, I’d think “C’mon, now you’re just trying to construct a ridiculously exotic locale for your little novella. I mean c’mon, a gas giant, in the habitable zone, orbiting not just one of a binary pair but both stars! Really??”

  34. @17 Cris: From the near hemisphere, as the moon orbits the planet, you’ll see the sun rise, approach and then appear to pass behind the planet (siesta time?), then hours later it emerges from the other side, sinking toward the horizon.

    Meanwhile, if you live on the far hemisphere, you’ll never see the planet at all! What stories would you hear from travelers who had visited the other half of the world?

    This is so fun to imagine!

    The Far Seer trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer takes place on the tidally locked moon of a gas giant, too. In it, a single supercontinent exists opposite the planet, so most of the inhabitants (sentient dinosaurs, basically) have never actually seen it. When it’s discovered by seafaring explorers, it becomes known as “the Face of God” and becomes the focus of pilgrimages.
    I highly recommend the books! Hard sci-fi, and it’s sort of an allegory for the development of science and Enlightenment ideas on Earth. There’s an analog of Galileo, and one who sort of takes the place of Darwin, and the story covers their discoveries and what happens when they try to make known their findings.

  35. @33 Amphiox: Still, that might be a bona fide disaster-movie scenario for any critters in that system. If I understand correctly, the brightness of a star increases with something like the cube of mass. So a single star with the mass of two smaller stars will put out significantly more energy than the sum of those two stars.

  36. I still don’t get what is cool, and especially what is amazing, about these discoveries. Yes, interesting. Yes, good science. But nothing sensational. It would have been a sensation if Kepler didn’t find anything like this.

    Your (well motivated) enthusiasm can create the false impression that the Earth is something special since if it weren’t, why would it be amazing to find a similar habitat?

  37. Gunnar

    Cool, and very interesting! I really enjoyed learning about this new discovery and reading the commentaries imagining what it might be like to live on an earth-sized moon orbiting that planet (some of which paralleled my own imaginings of what it might be like). What would intrigue and excite me even more, though, is finding that one or more of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system has potentially earth-like planets (or moons) in their habitable zones.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    A short time ago in a galaxy really, really near….

    ‘No planets around binaries’, my ass. That system is perfectly planar in both stars and planets, arguing for a simple protoplanetary disk and its evolution. And I guess have implications for binary star formation as well.

    I hear 1/3 of systems are binaries or multiple, so this is certainly a major increase in the number of observable habitables.

    #3:
    Even better, a binary merger has been observed:

    “The explanation that’s left is that of an eclipsing contact binary system (“contact” means that the stars are so close to each other that their atmospheres form one common envelope. A free, interactive demo can be found here.) This explains the periodic behavior of the light curve: the stars pass in front of each other, blocking out some of the light each time around. It also explains the decreasing period: the two stars are getting closer together and so, by Kepler’s 3rd law, their orbital period shrinks.

    And the 2008 eruption, how does that fit into the binary system scenario? That’s the two stars merging together. The merging of the two stars released a lot of energy, producing the bright outburst that first brought attention to V1309 Sco. A single star was left behind after the outburst, which has been gradually cooling since. The full light curve, from 2001 to 2010, is shown in the figure below. Although predicted by theory and generally expected, this is the first direct evidence that contact binaries merge to form a single star.”

    #14:
    Though planets will be more scattered in a binary (more large bodies pulling, necessitating larger margins for orbital long term stability), and this system tests this rather new prediction. So rarely any Mars trips for them!

    #25:
    My question is why you shout, and about a false dilemma to boot: we can do both caring about Earth and caring about other worlds.

    In fact, this is likely a synergism, besides that science always is (knowing more about other planet systems teach about our own, and vice versa).

  39. Gunnar

    @22, MTU:

    Yet there’s been interesting speculations from many science fiction writers already about life inside gas giants such as Jupiter – Arthur C. Clarke in the Space Odyssey series and Ben Bova’s Jupiter novel in his Grand Tour series (click on my name for wiki-link) for instance.

    Thanks for that tip! I have placed Bova’s Jupiter on my must read list. Have you read Robert L. Forward’s Saturn Rukh? It is about 5 explorers who descend into Saturn’s atmosphere and crash land on the back of a rukh, an enormous, sentient, flying creature that becomes aware of them and befriends them. It lived at a depth in Saturn’s Atmosphere where the pressure and density were just enough to buoy up its enormous mass, and the temperature permitted the existence of liquid water. I think you would enjoy it. I certainly did!

  40. andy

    One other point to note is the data contains an “orphan” transit which cannot be accounted for by either Kepler-47b or c. If it does actually correspond to another planet in the Kepler-47 system it would have a radius 4.5 times that of Earth, similar to planet c, though until another transit is detected this cannot be confirmed.

  41. Greg for President

    This is an interesting find and the moons of the further planet seem promising for life forms. Would this gas giant also put out deadly radiation like Jupiter?

  42. Jonathan Ray

    If our own solar system is any indication, the moons of a gas giant are unlikely to be large enough to hold an atmosphere, especially in the habitable zone. The only non-gas-giant objects with significant atmospheres in our solar system are Earth, Venus and Titan. Titan only has an atmosphere because it’s so damn cold that the molecules don’t reach escape velocity. An object in the habitable zone would need to have mass fairly close to earth’s mass to be able to retain water vapor for billions of years without retaining so many volatiles that no sunlight reaches the surface. Earth is barely massive enough to leak water into space slowly enough to retain oceans for billions of years, while less-massive Venus has “too much” volatiles. Earth probably would have had “too much” just like Venus if its volatiles hadn’t been vaporized and escaped during the impact event that formed the moon, and then further removed by life into oil, limestone, etc to compensate for ongoing outgassing of volcanic activity.

    So if we invent FTL travel to go check it out, I’ll bet you a thousand to one that it doesn’t have sunny beaches and billion year old liquid water oceans.

  43. Diederick

    The Exoplanet app is also available for Android.

  44. LOL “Click to tatooineneate.” love it :)

  45. andy

    @Jonathan Ray: actually while Venus does at first appear to be substantially richer in carbon dioxide than the Earth, this difference becomes much less if you consider the amount of carbon stored in the Earth’s crust (carbonate rocks, etc). If you released these reservoirs, you would end up with only slightly less carbon dioxide than is currently contained in the atmosphere of Venus. The current conditions of Venus do not favour carbon storage in that planet’s crust, so Venus is a more thoroughly outgassed planet than Earth rather than one that is substantially more enriched in volatiles.

  46. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ andy : Yep. Agreed. :-)

    BTW, I gather Venus probably lost an ocean or manys worth of water which would once have absorbed a lot of carbon dioxide before the Cytherean oceans boiled and steamed and photodissociated away.

    @33. amphiox :

    If these two stars merged, would the result be a Sirian type star? The smaller star is 1/3 the sun’s mass, and the larger one is about the same as the sun’s, so the merger would at most produce a star about 1 1/3 the sun’s mass, while Sirius has twice the sun’s mass.
    (IE, wouldn’t the product of the merger still be a G or maybe F class star?)

    Yes, for *this* system the result of a stellar merger would be, I think, an early G or late F type dwarf star given those respective masses.

    The system I was imagining there was ER Vulpeculae which consists of two solar twins so would produce a Sirian type star. Sorry, if that wasn’t clear.

    @39. Gunnar :

    Have you read Robert L. Forward’s Saturn Rukh?

    No I hadn’t heard of that one before. Cheers – will have to see if I can find a copy. :-)

  47. andy

    Would this gas giant also put out deadly radiation like Jupiter?

    Well given the size it is more likely a high-Z (metal-rich, which refers to elements other than hydrogen and helium) planet more like Uranus and Neptune than Jupiter. I use the term “high-Z” rather than the common “ice giant” because the Kepler-47 planets have migrated through the inner system where they may well have picked up substantial amounts of rocky (as opposed to icy) material, and also we don’t actually know how much ice is in Uranus and Neptune anyway (there could be a lot of rock there as well). Uranus and Neptune have weird magnetic fields, the magnetic axis is substantially offset from the centre of the planet – it looks like the magnetic fields are generated in a fluid layer nearer the “surface” of the planet than the centre. They do maintain radiation belts nevertheless.

    We actually know frustratingly little about the structure of Uranus and Neptune, let alone extrasolar Neptune-mass planets. It seems likely that there are significant differences between the two (so much for them being “twin planets”). In particular, Uranus appears to lack an internal heat source so heat from the Sun plays a significant role in its energy budget, while Neptune does exhibit internal heating. We also don’t know if these planets have a well-defined separation between the core, the mantle and the outer atmosphere.

    In short, we need another mission to both these planets, preferably with orbiters. Uranus itself seems to have a bit of a reputation for being a bland target and the moons so far appear to lack the cryovolcanic activity seen elsewhere. On the other hand, Hubble reveals significant seasonal variations and the inner moons and ring system seems to be a highly dynamic environment with rings forming and disappearing on timescales of years. Furthermore several of the shepherd satellites have unstable orbits.

    And finally, the stupid joke is stupid.

  48. qbsmd

    How does the habitable zone for moons of gas giants compare to the habitable zone for planets? Since moons are subject to infrared heating from the planet, as well as tidal heating, the moon habitable zone should extend further out (based on evidence liquid water on Enceladus and Europa, the habitable zone should extend that far). Would a moon in the habitable zone for planets be habitable, or too hot to support life?

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