Unlike the Sun, many stars are members of binary star systems – where two stars orbit one another – and these stars' planetary systems can be altered by the gravity of their companion stars.
The orbits of very distant or wide stellar companions often become very eccentric – ie. less circular – over time, driving the once-distant star into a plunging orbit that passes very close to the planets once per orbital period. The gravity of this close-passing companion can then wreak havoc on planetary systems, triggering planetary scatterings and even ejections.
"The stellar orbits of wide binaries are very sensitive to disturbances from other passing stars as well as the tidal field of the Milky Way," said Nathan Kaib, lead author of a study published today in Nature describing the findings. "This causes their stellar orbits to constantly change their eccentricity – their degree of circularity. If a wide binary lasts long enough, it will eventually find itself with a very high orbital eccentricity at some point in its life."
When a wide binary orbit becomes very eccentric, the two stars will pass very close together once per orbit on one side of the orbital ellipse, while being very far apart on the other side of the ellipse. This can have dire consequences for planets in these systems since the gravity of a close-passing star can radically change planetary orbits around the other star, causing planets to scatter off of one another and sometimes get ejected to interstellar space.
Kaib, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University and a National Fellow in the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, conducted computer simulations of the process with Queen's University physics professor Martin Duncan and Sean N. Raymond, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France. They added a a hypothetical wide binary companion to the Earth's solar system which eventually triggered at least one of four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) to be ejected in almost half of the simulations.
"This process takes hundreds of millions of years if not billions of years to occur in these binaries. Consequently, planets in these systems initially form and evolve as if they orbited an isolated star," said Kaib, who will present the findings this week at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California. "It is only much later that they begin to feel the effects of their companion star, which often times leads to disruption of the planetary system."
"We also found that there is substantial evidence that this process occurs regularly in known extrasolar planetary systems," said Duncan. "Planets are believed to form on circular orbits, and they are only thought to attain highly eccentric orbits through powerful and/or violent perturbations. When we looked at the orbital eccentricities of planets that are known to reside in wide binaries, we found that they are statistically more eccentric than planets around isolated stars like our Sun. "
The researchers believe this is a telltale signature of past planetary scattering events, and that those with eccentric orbits are often interpreted to be the survivors of system-wide instabilities.
"The eccentric planetary orbits seen in these systems are essentially scars from past disruptions caused by the companion star," said Raymond.
The researchers note that this observational signature could only be reproduced well when they assumed that the typical planetary system extends from its host star as much as 10 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Otherwise, the planetary system is too compact to be affected by even a stellar companion on a very eccentric orbit.
"Recently, planets orbiting at wide distances around their host stars have been directly imaged. Our work predicts that such planets are common but have so far gone largely undetected," says Duncan.
Note to media: Visit www.artsci.utoronto.ca/main/media-releases/wide-binary-stars-study to view a simulation of the process described here.
MEDIA CONTACTS:Nathan Kaib
Sean Bettam | EurekAlert!
Astronomers discover dizzying spin of the Milky Way galaxy's 'halo'
26.07.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Lonely Atoms, Happily Reunited
26.07.2016 | Technische Universität Wien
Transparent electronics devices are present in today’s thin film displays, solar cells, and touchscreens. The future will bring flexible versions of such devices. Their production requires printable materials that are transparent and remain highly conductive even when deformed. Researchers at INM – Leibniz Institute for New Materials have combined a new self-assembling nano ink with an imprint process to create flexible conductive grids with a resolution below one micrometer.
To print the grids, an ink of gold nanowires is applied to a substrate. A structured stamp is pressed on the substrate and forces the ink into a pattern. “The...
A new Fraunhofer MEVIS method conveys medical interrelationships quickly and intuitively with innovative visualization technology
On the monitor, a brain spins slowly and can be examined from every angle. Suddenly, some sections start glowing, first on the side and then the entire back of...
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Ames Laboratory have discovered an unusual property of purple bronze that may point to new ways to achieve high temperature superconductivity.
While studying purple bronze, a molybdenum oxide, researchers discovered an unconventional charge density wave on its surface.
Munich Physicists have developed a novel electron microscope that can visualize electromagnetic fields oscillating at frequencies of billions of cycles per second.
Temporally varying electromagnetic fields are the driving force behind the whole of electronics. Their polarities can change at mind-bogglingly fast rates, and...
Breakup of continents with two speed: Continents initially stretch very slowly along the future splitting zone, but then move apart very quickly before the onset of rupture. The final speed can be up to 20 times faster than in the first, slow extension phase.phases
Present-day continents were shaped hundreds of millions of years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. Derived from Pangaea’s main fragments Gondwana...
15.07.2016 | Event News
15.07.2016 | Event News
11.07.2016 | Event News
26.07.2016 | Information Technology
26.07.2016 | Health and Medicine
26.07.2016 | Physics and Astronomy