Researchers say wobbly jets of binary star systems may affect chances of hosting life: But how?

Our plan­et is cur­rent­ly the only one known to host life as we know it. This’s why, while look­ing for extrater­res­tri­al life, researchers have tra­di­tion­al­ly con­cen­trat­ed on plan­e­tary sys­tems that are com­pa­ra­ble to our own, almost ignor­ing the fact that the bina­ry star sys­tems with wob­bly jets could have chances of host­ing life.

Now, accord­ing to new research pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature on May 23, plan­e­tary sys­tems form dif­fer­ent­ly around bina­ry stars than they do around sin­gle stars like the sun. And that these vari­ances may have an impact on a bina­ry star sys­tem’s abil­i­ty to sup­port life.

Binary star systems and wobbly jets

Accord­ing to astronomers, bina­ry stars make up near­ly half of all sun-size stars. If the researchers’ the­o­ry is proven cor­rect, it might dou­ble the num­ber of sys­tems that researchers are inter­est­ed in inves­ti­gat­ing. Two stars orbit­ing a com­mon core make up bina­ry star sys­tems. The pairs of stars in a bina­ry sys­tem gen­er­al­ly orbit each oth­er with peri­ods rang­ing from days to mil­len­nia; and they can be extreme­ly near or very far away. 

Astronomers have dis­cov­ered that bina­ry star sys­tems make up more than half of all sun-size stars, indi­cat­ing that they’re rather fre­quent. Most of them don’t appear to have an impact on the for­ma­tion of plan­ets around their host star. How­ev­er, some peo­ple do. Astronomers are still per­plexed as to why some bina­ry star sys­tems appear to have more plan­ets than oth­ers when it comes to host­ing plan­ets. Wob­bly jets are gas and dust jets that emerge from the cen­tral stars in bina­ry star sys­tems. These jets can start near to the star. And then they grow out­ward over time, gen­er­at­ing rings of mate­r­i­al sur­round­ing the two stars, accord­ing to astronomers. As a result, the star is sur­round­ed by a “dou­ble-bub­ble” system.

Disagreements about the finding

How­ev­er, there is still con­sid­er­able dis­agree­ment over how fre­quent this type of orga­ni­za­tion is. Some astronomers think these sys­tems are rare. It’s because it’s dif­fi­cult to find a tar­get bina­ry star sys­tem from which to study them. A star sys­tem is said to host life when a plan­et in orbit around one of its stars has con­di­tions that allow it to sup­port life.  One way sci­en­tists can search for plan­ets with these con­di­tions is by look­ing for the ‘sig­na­ture’ of gas­es like oxy­gen and methane with­in a star sys­tem’s atmos­phere. To-date, sci­en­tists assumed that only the star sys­tems like ours could host life. It was because of the way plan­ets are thought to form around them. 

But, there’s also some debate about whether plan­ets form around solo stars or bina­ry sys­tems, as well. Jes Kris­t­ian Jør­gensen, the study lead author and pro­fes­sor of astro­physics and plan­e­tary sci­ence at the Niels Bohr Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Copen­hagen, said in a state­ment that the result was excit­ing, since the search for extrater­res­tri­al life would be equipped with sev­er­al new, extreme­ly pow­er­ful instru­ments with­in the com­ing years. The pro­fes­sor fur­ther added, “This enhances the sig­nif­i­cance of under­stand­ing how plan­ets are formed around dif­fer­ent types of stars.

New study and its results

Such results may pin­point places which would be espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing to probe for the exis­tence of life. Using the Ata­ca­ma Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) tele­scopes in Chile, the study was based on the obser­va­tions of the young bina­ry star sys­tem NGC 1333-IRAS2A. That sys­tem is around 1,000 light-years away and is sur­round­ed by a disc of gas and dust that may one day form a plan­e­tary sys­tem. The sci­en­tists then devel­oped sim­u­la­tions that allowed them to rewind and fast-for­ward the sys­tem’s life cycle. They noticed that the gas and dust did not move in a con­tin­u­ous pattern. 

The researchers added in a state­ment that the move­ment becomes quite strong at some points in time — nor­mal­ly for rel­a­tive­ly short dura­tions of 10 to 100 years per thou­sand years. “The bina­ry star gets 10 to 100 times brighter until it returns to its nor­mal form,” they not­ed. What the team the­o­rized was that at cer­tain points in the stars’ orbits around each oth­er, their grav­i­ty pulls mate­r­i­al from the gas and dust disk onto the sur­faces of the stars. In turn, these bursts of infalling trig­ger wob­bly jets shoot­ing out from the disk.

“The falling mate­r­i­al will trig­ger a sig­nif­i­cant heat­ing”, report said quot­ing to sec­ond author Raji­ka L. Kuruwi­ta, a post­doc­tor­al researcher at the Niels Bohr Insti­tute, as say­ing. L. Kuruwi­ta also added that those bursts would tear the gas and dust disk apart. While the disk would build up again, the bursts might still influ­ence the struc­ture of the lat­er plan­e­tary sys­tem. Accord­ing to the team of astronomers, solo stars like the sun prob­a­bly would not have gone through a sim­i­lar process. It like­ly means that plan­ets form dif­fer­ent­ly around solo stars than they do around bina­ry stars.

Astronomers’ future plan

Like­wise, researchers say they also plan to inves­ti­gate the pos­si­ble role of comets in plan­e­tary sys­tem for­ma­tion; as comets car­ry organ­ic mol­e­cules that could jump-start extrater­res­tri­al life on an oth­er­wise bar­ren planet.

The team of astronomers hopes to con­tin­ue their obser­va­tions with ALMA. And they’re look­ing for­ward to tap­ping into the next gen­er­a­tion of tele­scopes. Such tele­scopes include the James Webb Space Tele­scope, Europe’s Extreme­ly Large Tele­scope, and the Square Kilo­me­ter Array, all of which will begin oper­a­tions with­in the next five years. “Com­bin­ing the dif­fer­ent sources will pro­duce a lot of intrigu­ing results,” Jrgensen added. If this the­o­ry is proven cor­rect, it could reveal more knowl­edge about plan­et for­ma­tion; and per­haps it will assist astronomers in iden­ti­fy­ing prime plan­et-form­ing areas. It could also dis­close pre­vi­ous­ly unknown pos­si­bil­i­ties for plan­e­tary sys­tems. Thanks to fur­ther under­stand­ing of the com­po­si­tion and behav­ior of wob­bly jets, astronomers could even pro­pose new meth­ods for cre­at­ing plan­ets with­in a lab­o­ra­to­ry setting.

More impor­tant­ly, this research may pave a new way to search for extrater­res­tri­al lives on some oth­er plan­ets with dif­fer­ent star and plan­e­tary systems.

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