Habitability of binary star systems

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Planets in binary star systems may be candidates for supporting extraterrestrial life. Habitability of binary star systems is determined by a large number of factors from a variety of sources. Typical estimates often suggest that 50% or more of all star systems are binary systems. This may be partly due to sample bias, as massive and bright stars tend to be in binaries and these are most easily observed and catalogued; a more precise analysis has suggested that the more common fainter stars are usually singular, and that up to two thirds of all stellar systems are therefore solitary.[1]

The separation between stars in a binary may range from less than one astronomical unit (AU) (the average Earth-to-Sun distance) to several hundred AU. In latter instances, the gravitational effects will be negligible on a planet orbiting an otherwise suitable star, and habitability potential will not be disrupted unless the orbit is highly eccentric (see Nemesis, for example). In reality, some orbital ranges are impossible for dynamical reasons (the planet would be expelled from its orbit relatively quickly, being either ejected from the system altogether or transferred to a more inner or outer orbital range), whilst other orbits present serious challenges for eventual biospheres because of likely extreme variations in surface temperature during different parts of the orbit. If the separation is significantly close to the planet's distance, a stable orbit may be impossible.

Planets that orbit just one star in a binary pair are said to have "S-type" orbits, whereas those that orbit around both stars have "P-type" or "circumbinary" orbits. It is estimated that 50–60% of binary stars are capable of supporting habitable terrestrial planets within stable orbital ranges.[2]

Non-circumbinary planet[edit]

In non circumbinary planet, if a planet's distance to its primary exceeds about one fifth of the closest approach of the other star, orbital stability is not guaranteed.[3] Whether planets might form in binaries at all had long been unclear, given that gravitational forces might interfere with planet formation. Theoretical work by Alan Boss at the Carnegie Institution has shown that gas giants can form around stars in binary systems much as they do around solitary stars.[4]

One study of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the Sun, suggested that binaries need not be discounted in the search for habitable planets. Centauri A and B have an 11 AU distance at closest approach (23 AU mean), and both should have stable habitable zones. A study of long-term orbital stability for simulated planets within the system shows that planets within approximately three AU of either star may remain stable (i.e. the semi-major axis deviating by less than 5%). The HZ for Centauri A is conservatively estimated at 1.2 to 1.3 AU and Centauri B at 0.73 to 0.74—well within the stable region in both cases.[5]

Circumbinary planet[edit]

For a circumbinary planet, orbital stability is guaranteed only if the planet's distance from the stars is significantly greater than star-to-star distance.

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.[6]

For example, Kepler-47c is a gas giant in the circumbinary habitable zone of the Kepler-47 system.

Presumed conditions for moons orbiting a giant planet[edit]

If a giant planet is orbiting in a circumbinary orbit in the habitable zone, then they may have the potential to host habitable moons.

The conditions of habitability for moons are similar to those of planetary habitability. However, there are several factors which differentiate natural satellite habitability and additionally extend their habitability outside the planetary habitable zone.[7]

Liquid water[edit]

Liquid water is thought by most astrobiologists as an essential prerequisite for extraterrestrial life. There is growing evidence of subsurface liquid water on several moons in the Solar System orbiting the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. However, none of these subsurface bodies of water has been confirmed to date.

Orbital stability[edit]

For a stable orbit the ratio between the moon's orbital period Ps around its primary and that of the primary around its star Pp must be < 1/9, e.g. if a planet takes 90 days to orbit its star, the maximum stable orbit for a moon of that planet is less than 10 days.[8][9] Simulations suggest that a moon with an orbital period less than about 45 to 60 days will remain safely bound to a massive giant planet or brown dwarf that orbits 1 AU from a Sun-like star.[10]


An atmosphere is considered by astrobiologists to be important in developing prebiotic chemistry, sustaining life and for surface water to exist. Most natural satellites in the Solar System lack significant atmospheres, the sole exception being Saturn's moon, Titan.

Sputtering, a process whereby atoms are ejected from a solid target material due to bombardment of the target by energetic particles, presents a significant problem for natural satellites. All the gas giants in the Solar System, and likely those orbiting other stars, have magnetospheres with radiation belts potent enough to completely erode an atmosphere of an Earth-like moon in just a few hundred million years. Strong stellar winds can also strip gas atoms from the top of an atmosphere causing them to be lost to space.

To support an Earth-like atmosphere for about 4.6 billion years (Earth's current age), a moon with a Mars-like density is estimated to need at least 7% of Earth's mass.[11] One way to decrease loss from sputtering is for the moon to have a strong magnetic field that can deflect stellar wind and radiation belts. NASA's Galileo's measurements hints large moons can have magnetic fields; it found Ganymede has its own magnetosphere, even though its mass is only 2.5% of Earth's.[10] An exception is if the moon's atmosphere is constantly replenished by gases from subsurface sources —as thought by some scientists to be the case with Titan.[citation needed]

Tidal effects[edit]

While the effects of tidal acceleration are relatively modest on planets, it can be a significant source of energy for natural satellites and an alternative energy source for sustaining life.

Moons orbiting gas giants or brown dwarfs are likely to be tidally locked to their primary: that is, their days are as long as their orbits. While tidal locking may adversely affect planets within habitable zones by interfering with the distribution of stellar radiation, it may work in favour of satellite habitability by allowing tidal heating. Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center modelled the temperature on tide-locked exoplanets in the habitability zone of red dwarf stars. They found that an atmosphere with a carbon dioxide (CO
) pressure of only 1–1.5 standard atmospheres (15–22 psi) not only allows habitable temperatures, but allows liquid water on the dark side of the satellite. The temperature range of a moon that is tidally locked to a gas giant could be less extreme than with a planet locked to a star. Even though no studies have been done on the subject, modest amounts of CO
are speculated to make the temperature habitable.[10]

Tidal effects could also allow a moon to sustain plate tectonics, which would cause volcanic activity to regulate the moon's temperature[12][13] and create a geodynamo effect which would give the satellite a strong magnetic field.[14]

Axial tilt and climate[edit]

Provided gravitational interaction of a moon with other satellites can be neglected, moons tend to be tidally locked with their planets. In addition to the rotational locking mentioned above, there will also be a process termed 'tilt erosion', which has originally been coined for the tidal erosion of planetary obliquity against a planet's orbit around its host star.[15] The final spin state of a moon then consists of a rotational period equal to its orbital period around the planet and a rotational axis that is perpendicular to the orbital plane.

Being tidally locked to a giant planet or sub-brown dwarf would allow for more moderate climates on a moon than there would be if the moon were a similar-sized planet orbiting in locked rotation in the habitable zone of the star.[16] This is especially true of red dwarf systems, where comparatively high gravitational forces and low luminosities leave the habitable zone in an area where tidal locking would occur. If tidally locked, one rotation about the axis may take a long time relative to a planet (for example, ignoring the slight axial tilt of Earth's moon and topographical shadowing, any given point on it has two weeks – in Earth time – of sunshine and two weeks of night in its lunar day) but these long periods of light and darkness are not as challenging for habitability as the eternal days and eternal nights on a planet tidally locked to its star.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Most Milky Way Stars Are Single" (Press release). Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. January 30, 2006. Archived from the original on 2007-08-13. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  2. ^ Elisa V. Quintana, Jack J. Lissauer (2007). "Terrestrial Planet Formation in Binary Star Systems". arXiv:0705.3444Freely accessible [astro-ph]. 
  3. ^ "Stars and Habitable Planets". www.solstation.com. Sol Company. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  4. ^ "Planetary Systems can from around Binary Stars" (Press release). Carnegie Institution. January 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  5. ^ Wiegert, Paul A.; Holman, Matt J. (April 1997). "The stability of planets in the Alpha Centauri system". The Astronomical Journal. 113 (4): 1445–1450. arXiv:astro-ph/9609106Freely accessible. Bibcode:1997AJ....113.1445W. doi:10.1086/118360. 
  6. ^ Recent Kepler Results On Circumbinary Planets, William F. Welsh, Jerome A. Orosz, Joshua A. Carter, Daniel C. Fabrycky, (Submitted on 28 Aug 2013)
  7. ^ Scharf, Caleb Exomoons Ever Closer. Scientific American. October 4, 2011
  8. ^ Kipping, David (2009). "Transit timing effects due to an exomoon". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 392: 181–189. arXiv:0810.2243Freely accessible. Bibcode:2009MNRAS.392..181K. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2008.13999.x. Retrieved 22 February 2012. 
  9. ^ Heller, R. (2012). "Exomoon habitability constrained by energy flux and orbital stability". Astronomy & Astrophysics. 545: L8. arXiv:1209.0050Freely accessible. Bibcode:2012A&A...545L...8H. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201220003. ISSN 0004-6361. 
  10. ^ a b c Andrew J. LePage. "Habitable Moons:What does it take for a moon — or any world — to support life?". SkyandTelescope.com. Retrieved 2011-07-11. 
  11. ^ "In Search Of Habitable Moons". Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved 2011-07-11. 
  12. ^ Glatzmaier, Gary A. "How Volcanoes Work – Volcano Climate Effects". Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  13. ^ "Solar System Exploration: Io". Solar System Exploration. NASA. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  14. ^ Nave, R. "Magnetic Field of the Earth". Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  15. ^ Heller, René; Barnes, Rory; Leconte, Jérémy (April 2011). "Tidal obliquity evolution of potentially habitable planets". Astronomy and Astrophysics. 528: A27. arXiv:1101.2156Freely accessible. Bibcode:2011A&A...528A..27H. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201015809. 
  16. ^ Choi, Charles Q. (27 December 2009). "Moons Like Avatar's Pandora Could Be Found". Space.com. Retrieved 16 January 2012.