Astronomers from NASA claim that binary systems could be hiding many Earth-like planets that are currently escaping our telescopes. But why binary systems?
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As far as we know, Earth is still a unique planet. The only one capable of hosting life as we know we know it. But there could similar planets hiding in binary and multi-stellar systems. For example, Proxima Centauri – part of a three-star system has a planet called Proxima b that is quite similarly sized to Earth.
But probably the biggest reason is that multi-star systems (including binary systems) are very common in our galaxy and estimates say that at least one-third of all stellar systems and possibly up to half could be multi-star systems. And if they are close enough to each other they could seem like a single star from larger distances. And then it becomes quite hard to use our classical methods to find exoplanets near them.
Obviously, this isn’t true for our closest system Alpha Centauri where we can use our powerful telescopes to clearly see Proxima A and Proxima B a bit further away. And these stars are actually at the edge of being a multi-stellar system as the average distance between the stars is 23 AU. More than the distance between Neptune and the Sun.
The telescope Kepler and its successor TESS use the transitional method to discover exoplanets. This method discovered the vast majority of discovered exoplanets. Yet, these telescopes aren’t that special when it comes to their optical properties. What is important is the angle and the ability to observe many systems at once. Thus binary systems can easily seem like a single bright point.
A team from the Ames Research Center (NASA) is using the Gemini North and South at Chile and Hawaii respectively to find out which of the stars observed by TESS is actually a multi-stellar system. So far, they discovered 73 such systems, and another 18 were discovered by the telescope WIYN. And on top of that TESS discovered a number of exoplanets similarly sized to the Earth in single-star systems but the multi-stellar systems only had gas giants in them.
So, this suggests that TESS simply isn’t capable of finding these planets in multi-stellar systems.
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