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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Binary stars

If you have never heard of a binary star system or Tatooine or seen this image  http://joehillfiction.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/tatooine.jpg then you probably have no reason to be here so, er, bye?

If you have and you know that a binary star system is where two stars are together in the same solar system and recognise the image from Star Wars chances are you already know about the binary star system that NASA's Kepler space telescope has found (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19401891). 

Now what makes this discovery truly special is the two planets discovered orbiting the dual stars in the Cygnus system (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlNrQGmj6oQ). This was thought to be something that would not be possible due to the gravity which the two stars produced. Or more interestingly the flux in the gravity that might be produced by the two stars. The thought being that the gravity would do strange things to any planets orbiting the stars. By strange things we mean either pinging them into space, pulling them into one of the stars or smashing planets into each other. 

Sounds very sci-fi doesn't it!

However the new discovery in system Kepler-47 is even more remarkable - yes even more than having two planets orbiting! - in that one of the planets exists in the 'habitable zone'. 

Oooooh!

Put simply the habitable zone is the region around a star that would allow water to exist as a liquid on the surface of the planet. 

Exciting stuff however the planet (Kepler-47c) is slightly larger than Uranus and so is thought to be a gas giant type planet (like Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus are). Which would make it unlikely to harbour life. Probably due to the turbulent nature of the atmospheres within those planets - the 'spot' on Jupiter is a giant permanent hurricane the size of the Earth. This though shouldn't take away from the excitement that it is possible for a binary star to have planets orbiting it and for those planets to be in the habitable zone.

In fact the Kepler space telescope is producing some incredible data in the discovery of exoplanets around distant stars. Which is even cooler when you can help out with the possible identification of potential planets via  http://www.planethunters.org/ . The same technique used on the website - looking for dips in light from the star, which would equate to a planet passing in front of it - is what was used to discover the two planets in Kepler-47 (what they call analysing transects). 

Through this method the Kepler telescope has discovered 207 Earth-sized planets. Of which 10 fall within the habitable zone. 

However.

It is probably my ignorance. Or maybe just skepticism, but I understand why we look for the same conditions that are present on our planet. So far that is the only place we have found life so it makes sense to start from a position where we have data. 

It just seems a very anthropomorphic view that water would be required for life because water is required for life here. 

Maybe it is at the moment a case of 'if we look for something similar to what we have we narrow the search down to a manageable size as we are searching in something infinite'. However it still seems to jar with me that life has to be the same as here. As it wouldn't be. 

After all the most abundant organisms on this planet are bacteria. If you are looking for an abundant form of life above them you are looking at plants and insects. Now maybe there is some reason - and there probably is - why they have to have water as the medium for chemical reactions to occur in - I think it might have something to do with water's unique properties - does that mean though that it is the only solvent life would form in?

Or are we limiting our imaginations and thus our searches? 

I honestly don't have a clue or an answer or an idea - often the case! Yet it just doesn't feel right that in a universe of infinite possibilities the forms of life that we know and that we can see are the only way life will have come about.  After all life finds a way (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkWeMvrNiOM), apparently. 

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