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Surface flux patterns on planets in circumbinary systems and potential for photosynthesis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2014

Duncan H. Forgan*
Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA), Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK UK Centre for Astrobiology, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK
Alexander Mead
Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA), Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK
Charles S. Cockell
UK Centre for Astrobiology, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, UK
John A. Raven
Division of Plant Sciences, University of Dundee at TJHI, The James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee, UK


Recently, the Kepler Space Telescope has detected several planets in orbit around a close binary star system. These so-called circumbinary planets will experience non-trivial spatial and temporal distributions of radiative flux on their surfaces, with features not seen in their single-star orbiting counterparts. Earth-like circumbinary planets inhabited by photosynthetic organisms will be forced to adapt to these unusual flux patterns. We map the flux received by putative Earth-like planets (as a function of surface latitude/longitude and time) orbiting the binary star systems Kepler-16 and Kepler-47, two star systems which already boast circumbinary exoplanet detections. The longitudinal and latitudinal distribution of flux is sensitive to the centre-of-mass motion of the binary, and the relative orbital phases of the binary and planet. Total eclipses of the secondary by the primary, as well as partial eclipses of the primary by the secondary add an extra forcing term to the system. We also find that the patterns of darkness on the surface are equally unique. Beyond the planet's polar circles, the surface spends a significantly longer time in darkness than latitudes around the equator, due to the stars’ motions delaying the first sunrise of spring (or hastening the last sunset of autumn). In the case of Kepler-47, we also find a weak longitudinal dependence for darkness, but this effect tends to average out if considered over many orbits. In the light of these flux and darkness patterns, we consider and discuss the prospects and challenges for photosynthetic organisms, using terrestrial analogues as a guide.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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