Astronomers create the first 3D rendering of a binary star system

It all started with oscillation.

About 20 light-years from Earth, which is very close to the cosmic scale, scientists have noticed that a star is behaving a bit funny. Something small almost imperceptibly seemed to be dragging it, forcing it to “wobbly” in its interstellar neighborhood, astronomers whimsically say.

Aha, exoplanet.

This was Jupiter, to be exact, about twice the mass of the gas giant in our solar system, orbiting its star every 284 days and getting a little closer to its star than Venus, which floats from the sun. Hence, an already active feat, the discovery team decided to take things to the next level – especially since the wobbly star on hand exists as part of a binary star system, meaning it’s one of two stars orbiting each other.

After careful analysis, these researchers hit the jackpot. They used their faint signals of an alien world to develop what they consider to be the first-ever diagram of a complete three-dimensional structure of not just the orbit of a binary star system, but with a planet roaming within it.

And before we go any further, yes, you can check out a charming visual representation of those charts below. (More technical details can be found in a research paper published Thursday in The Astronomical Journal.)

Well, cool, what can we do with this?

As Earthlings, we’re used to living side by side with our only sun, but when counting star constellations across the universe, our planet’s personal space heater seems to be in the minority. In general, stars prefer to travel in doubles, triples, and even quadruplets.

“Since most stars are in binary or multiple systems, being able to understand systems like this will help us understand planetary formation in general,” said Salvador Curiel, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and first author of the new research paper. a permit. The data we get from our own corner of the universe isn’t really enough to understand some of the great rules of how planets form or how they evolve. It is always better to have a wider sample size.

Back in the binary star system we’re looking at using a 3-D Coriel diagram, this particular pair, called GJ 896AD, is importantly made up of two red dwarfs – aka the smallest, coolest type of main-sequence star and the most common star. Kind in the Milky Way.

And what better place to start deciphering the secrets of multi-star systems than with the kind most prevalent in our galaxy?

Viewed from the bottom of the frame is a yellow-orange planet representing the exoplanet studied by scientists.  Above the horizon line you can see a small glowing yellow dot representing a star and further from these two spheres is a crimson red dot representing another star.

From atop a planet twice the size of Jupiter, this artist’s depiction of the star shows the planet and the binary companion of this star from afar.

Sophia Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF

To paint a picture of what this distant world looks like, researchers say the two largest stars, the one that orbits an exoplanet, contains about 44% of the mass of our sun. The smallest size is about 17% of the mass of our Sun. Very small, very cute. Oh, they orbit each other once every 229 Earth years, while super Jupiter follows an orbit inclined about 148 degrees from the two stars’ paths.

“There are alternative theories of the formation mechanism, and more data could indicate which one is more likely,” Joel Sanchez-Bermúdez of UNAM and an author of the study said in the statement. “In particular, current models indicate that such a large planet is unlikely to be a companion to such a small star, so perhaps these models need adjusting.”

Thank you, very long baseline set

The driving force behind this astronomical development – figuratively and literally – is the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Matrix. This flag mechanism consists of a network of 10 observation stations spread across the United States, each one equipped with a 25-meter radio antenna dish and a control building. Essentially, the stations individually capture deep space information, then connect the dots to create a crystal-clear representation of what’s happening in the universe.

In the background is a medium blue sky, a mountain range perpendicular to the landscape of the portrait and bushes in the foreground.  In the center of this scene is a giant white instrument holding one of the VLBA's antennas.

In Northern California, one of the 10 identical antennas is in the very long baseline array.


In this study, from GJ896AB, scientists collected visual observations spanning an astonishing span of time: from 1941 to 2017. They then called up VLBA observations taken between 2006 and 2011, as well as making the new VLBA notes in 2020. Slap it all together and you get a nice measurement of GJ896AB’s positions over time, which can be incorporated into something like a stop-motion concept of how this star system would look.

“The planet moves around the main star in the opposite direction to the secondary star around the main star,” said Gisela Ortiz-Lyon, of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and author of the study. “This is the first time such a dynamic structure has been observed in a planet associated with a compact binary system presumably formed in the same protoplanetary disk.”

“We can do more work like this with the next generation VLA planned,” said Amy Miodozzewski, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and author of the research paper. “Using it, we may be able to find planets as small as Earth.”

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