Sun and Stars: New Planet Formation More Than Science Fiction

sunThe sun and the stars are the subject of much research. Sometimes it is difficult to detect fiction from reality. The unknown is mystifying. The Star Wars franchise has capitalized on this over the years. The fictional planet in the movies was created for the storyline, but new circumbinary planet formation does occur in real life. A study at the University of Bristol involved the use of computers to model planetary formation, proving that planets with more than one star in their orbit are more than science fiction.

Circumbinary planets have been a hot topic in science fiction novels and movies. Most notably is Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine. The fictional planet was featured in the Star Wars movies. Circumbinary planets are not confined to Star Wars movies, though. Kepler-34(AB)b is a real circumbinary planet that was discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission in 2012. It is roughly the size of Saturn. It fits the description, having two stars in its orbit, but until now it has stumped scientists as to how it formed there. Researchers are finding new ways to study exactly how the planets are formed and how they interact with the sun and the stars.

Planets form around a single star. They form out of gas, dust and rock clusters that stay together with the help of gravity from the stars. But scientists are just learning exactly how the process works. They wanted to see why they were not colliding with the stars during their formation.

Research on the subject was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, detailing how Dr. Zoe Leinhardt, an astrophysicist at Bristol’s School of Physics used modern techniques to learn about planetary behavior. Along with Leinhardt, a team of scientists used simulators to see that circumbinary planets are created far from the binary stars before orbiting the sun and the stars. The study looked deeper into the collisions than previous studies of its kind, thanks to the sophisticated simulators.

They studied the planet’s growth rate, as well as it’s environment. They know that Kepler-34(AB)b would have had a hard time forming in the current location. Objects with much stronger gravitational pull could not have remained where the circumbinary planet now exists. Gravity and high energy would have caused collisions that would have destroyed the planet by now, breaking down the material that has started to form.

They modeled the effect of gravity, collisions and matter forming into new planets. They discovered that they don’t actually form near the sun and stars. They likely form 120 million miles away, then slowly migrate toward their destination in orbit between two stars. Dr. Leinhardt reasons that other circumbinary planets would have formed in the same manner. Even Tatooine, a fictional planet in the binary Tatoo star system, would have formed far from its current location.

This discovery can impact future missions to space and help scientists discover similar planets in the binary star system. As scientists continue to study the sun and the stars in new ways, they are able to learn more about planet formation and prove that even though they the subject of popular story-lines, they are indeed more than science fiction.

By Tracy Rose


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