There were two exciting Kepler (the NASA mission tasked with discovering planets outside of our solar system) news released yesterday. I’m covering them in two separate posts. This is Part 2; read Part 1.
The second exciting Kepler news release is one of the most interesting yet; in fact, this discovery confirmed the existence of an entirely new class of planetary system! Today, astronomers announced the discovery of two new “circumbinary” planet systems; these follow the first circumbinary planet system announced in September of last year, the planet Kepler-16b.
So what does circumbinary mean anyway, and why is it so interesting? Let me answer the first question, which should preclude the need to answer the second.
A circumbinary planet is one that orbits not one, but two stars. When Kepler-16b was confirmed last Fall, it wasn’t clear whether we should expect many more circumbinary planets or if that system was just a fluke. With the discovery of these two new systems, it is becoming apparent that circumbinary planets are abundant.
What makes this interesting is that binary-star systems are abundant in our galaxy. From the report published in Nature:
The observed rate of circumbinary planets in our sample implies that more than ~1% of close binary stars have giant planets in nearly coplanar orbits, yielding a Galactic population of at least several million.
At least several million!
As for the planets themselves, they are both gas giants about the size of Saturn. Kepler-34b orbits its binary-pair of Sun-like stars every 289 days, while the stars themselves orbit and eclipse each other every 28 days. Kepler-35b orbits its smaller pair of stars every 131 days, with the stars orbiting and eclipsing one another every 21 days. The Kepler-34 and Kepler-35 systems lie in the constellation Cygnus, 4,900 and 5,400 light-years from Earth, respectively.
For more information, check out these links: