Circumbinary planet

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An artist's impression of the giant planet orbiting the binary system PSR B1620-26, which contains a pulsar and a white dwarf star and is located in the globular cluster M4.

A circumbinary planet is a planet that orbits two stars instead of one. Because of the short orbits of some binary stars, the only way for planets to form is by forming outside the orbit of the two stars.[1]

Observations and discoveries[edit]

Confirmed planets[edit]

The first confirmed circumbinary extrasolar planet was found orbiting the system PSR B1620-26, which contains a millisecond pulsar and a white dwarf and is located in the globular cluster M4. The existence of the third body was first reported in 1993,[2] and was suggested to be a planet based on 5 years of observational data.[3] In 2003 the planet was characterised as being 2.5 times the mass of Jupiter in a low eccentricity orbit with a semimajor axis of 23 AU.[4] The first circumbinary extrasolar planet around a main sequence star was found in 2005 in the system HD 202206: a Jupiter-size planet orbiting a system composed of a Sun-like star and a brown dwarf.[5]

Announced in 2008, the eclipsing binary system HW Virginis, comprising a subdwarf B star and a red dwarf, was found to also host a planetary system. The inner and outer planets have masses at least 8.47 and 19.23 times that of Jupiter respectively, and have orbital periods of 9 and 16 years. The outer planet is sufficiently massive that it may be considered to be a brown dwarf under some definitions of the term,[6] but the discoverers argue that the orbital configuration implies it formed like a planet from a circumbinary disc. Both planets may have accreted additional mass when the primary star lost material during its red giant phase.[7]

On 15 September 2011, astronomers announced the first partial-eclipse-based discovery of a circumbinary planet.[8][9] The planet, called Kepler-16b, is about 200 light years from Earth, in the constellation Cygnus, and is believed to be a frozen world of rock and gas, about the mass of Saturn. It orbits two stars that are also circling each other, one about two-thirds the size of our sun, the other about a fifth the size of our sun. Each orbit of the stars by the planet takes 229 days, while the planet orbits the system's center of mass every 225 days; the stars eclipse each other every three weeks or so. Scientists made the finding through NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which launched in 2009 and has been a driving force in the recent explosion in the discovery of distant planets.

Other observations[edit]

An artist's impression of the binary star system HD 98800 B, which is surrounded by a disc that may be in the process of forming planets. HD 98800 B is itself a member of a quadruple star system.

Claims of a planet discovered via microlensing, orbiting the close binary pair MACHO-1997-BLG-41, were announced in 1999.[10] The planet was said to be in a wide orbit around the two red dwarf companions, but the claims were later retracted, as it turned out the detection could be better explained by the orbital motion of the binary stars themselves.[11]

Several attempts have been made to detect planets around the eclipsing binary system CM Draconis, itself part of the triple system GJ 630.1. The eclipsing binary has been surveyed for transiting planets, but no conclusive detections were made and eventually the existence of all the candidate planets was ruled out.[12][13] More recently, efforts have been made to detect variations in the timing of the eclipses of the stars caused by the reflex motion associated with an orbiting planet, but at present no discovery has been confirmed. The orbit of the binary stars is eccentric, which is unexpected for such a close binary as tidal forces ought to have circularised the orbit. This may indicate the presence of a massive planet or brown dwarf in orbit around the pair whose gravitational effects maintain the eccentricity of the binary.[14]

Circumbinary discs that may indicate processes of planet formation have been found around several stars, and are in fact common around binaries with separations less than 3 AU.[15][16] One notable example is in the HD 98800 system, which comprises two pairs of binary stars separated by around 34 AU. The binary subsystem HD 98800 B, which consists of two stars of 0.70 and 0.58 solar masses in a highly eccentric orbit with semimajor axis 0.983 AU, is surrounded by a complex dust disc that is being warped by the gravitational effects of the mutually-inclined and eccentric stellar orbits.[17][18] The other binary subsystem, HD 98800 A, is not associated with significant amounts of dust.[19]

System characteristics[edit]

The Kepler results indicate circumbinary planetary systems are relatively common (as of October 2013 the spacecraft had found seven planets out of roughly 1000 eclipsing binaries searched).

Stellar configuration[edit]

There is a wide range of stellar configurations for which circumbinary planets can exist. Primary star masses range from 0.69 to 1.53 solar masses (Kepler-16 A & PH1 Aa), star mass ratios from 1.03 to 3.76 (Kepler-34 & PH1), and binary eccentricity from 0.023 to 0.521 (Kepler-47 & Kepler-34). The distribution of planet eccentricities, range from nearly circular e=0.007 to a significant e=0.182 (Kepler-16 & Kepler-34). No orbital resonances with the binary have been found.[20]

Orbital dynamics[edit]

The binary stars Kepler-34 A and B have a highly eccentric orbit (e=0.521) around each other and their interaction with the planet is strong enough that a deviation from Kepler's laws is noticeable after just one orbit.[20]


All Kepler circumbinary planets that were known as of August 2013 orbit their stars very close to the plane of the binary (in a prograde direction) which suggests a single-disk formation.[20] However, not all circumbinary planets are co-planar with the binary: Kepler-413b is tilted 2.5 degrees which may be due to the gravitational influence of other planets or a third star.[21][22]

Axial tilt precession[edit]

The axial tilt of Kepler-413b's spin axis might vary by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years, leading to rapid and erratic changes in seasons.[22]


Simulations show that it is likely that all of the circumbinary planets known prior to a 2014 study migrated significantly from their formation location with the possible exception of Kepler-47(AB)c.[23]

Semi-major axes close to critical radius[edit]

The minimum stable star to circumbinary planet separation is about 2-4 times the binary star separation, or orbital period about 3-8 times the binary period. The innermost planets in all the Kepler circumbinary systems have been found orbiting close to this radius. The planets have semi-major axes that lie between 1.09 and 1.46 times this critical radius. The reason could be that migration might become inefficient near the critical radius, leaving planets just outside this radius.[20]

Absence of planets around shorter period binaries[edit]

Most Kepler eclipsing binaries have periods less than 1 day but the shortest period of a Kepler eclipsing binary hosting a planet is 7.4 days (Kepler-47). The short-period binaries are unlikely to have formed in such a tight orbit and their lack of planets may be related to the mechanism that removed angular momentum allowing the stars to orbit so closely.[20]

Planet size limit[edit]

As of August 2013 all the confirmed Kepler circumbinary planets are smaller than Jupiter. This cannot be a selection effect because larger planets are easier to detect.[20] Simulations had predicted this would be the case.[24]


All the Kepler circumbinary planets are either close to or actually in the habitable zone. None of the them are terrestrial planets, but large moons of such planets could be habitable. Because of the stellar binarity, the insolation received by the planet will likely be time-varying in a way, quite unlike the regular sunlight Earth receives.[20]

List of circumbinary planets[edit]

Confirmed circumbinary planets[edit]

Star system Planet Mass
Semimajor axis
Orbital period
Discovered Ref Discovery method
PSR B1620-26 b 2.5 23 100 2003 Pulsar timing
HD 202206 c 2.44 2.55 3.79 2005 [5] Radial velocity
DP Leonis b 6.28 ± 0.58 8.6 23.8 2009 Eclipsing binary timing
NN Serpentis c 6.91 ± 0.54 5.38 ± 0.20 15.50 ± 0.45 2010 Eclipsing binary timing
NN Serpentis d 2.28 ± 0.38 3.39 ± 0.10 7.75 ± 0.35 2010 [25] Eclipsing binary timing
DT Virginis c 8.5 ± 2.5 1168 33081 2010 Imaging
Kepler-16 b 0.333 ± 0.016 0.7048 ± 0.0011 0.6266 ± 0.0001 2011 [26] Transit
NY Virginis b 2.3 ± 0.3 3.3 7.9 2011 [27] Eclipsing binary timing
RR Caeli b 4.2 ± 0.4 5.3 ± 0.6 11.9 2012 [28] Eclipsing binary timing
Kepler-34 b 0.220 ± 0.0011 1.0896 ± 0.0009 0.7908 ± 0.0002 2012 [29] Transit
Kepler-35 b 0.127 ± 0.02 0.603 ± 0.001 0.3600 ± 0.1 2012 [29] Transit
Kepler-38 b ≤ 0.38 0.4644 ± 0.0082 0.289 2012 [30] Transit
Kepler-47 b unknown 0.2956 ± 0.0047 0.136 2012 [31] Transit
Kepler-47 c unknown 0.989 ± 0.016 0.83 2012 [31] Transit
Kepler 64 PH1 0.11 ± 0.3 0.634 ± 0.011 0.379 2012 Transit
ROXs 42B ROXs 42Bb 10±4 140 2013 Imaging
FW Tauri FW Tauri b 10±4 330 2013 Imaging
Kepler-413 b 0.21 0.3553 0.181 2014 [32] Transit
Kepler-453b b >0.05 Unknown 0.658 2015 [33] Transit

Unconfirmed or doubtful[edit]

Star system Planetary object Mass
Semimajor axis
Orbital period Discovered
MACHO-1997-BLG-41 MACHO-1997-BLG-41 b ~3 ~7  ? 1999

A pair of planets around HD 202206 or a circumbinary planet?[edit]

HD 202206 is a Sun-like star orbited by two objects, one of 17 Mj and one of 2.4 Mj. The classification of HD 202206 b as a brown dwarf or "superplanet" is currently unclear. The two objects could have both formed in a protoplanetary disk with the inner one becoming a superplanet, or the outer planet could have formed in a circumbinary disk.[5] A dynamical analysis of the system further shows a 5:1 mean motion resonance between the planet and the brown dwarf.[34] These observations raise the question of how this system was formed, but numerical simulations show that a planet formed in a circumbinary disk can migrate inward until it is captured in resonance.[35]



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Further reading[edit]