We all know that life on Earth depends on the Sun, and not just to keep the cold out. Plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, giving us oxygen to breathe, and in one way or another, the whole food chain relies on our parent star for support.
But what if our solar system had two stars? We know that there are several exoplanet systems out there that have the luxury of multiple host stars. In the case of the Kepler 47 system, there is a planet in the habitable zone (confirmed by several teams of astrobiologists, including myself). Kepler-47c orbits a star quite like our Sun and a cool red dwarf star (see graphic below), and so we refer to it as a circumbinary planet.
But what would it be like to live on a planet like Kepler-47c, and gaze at a double sunset like Luke Skywalker? Would life be all that different? In a paper recently accepted for publication by the International Journal of Astrobiology, we explored this question.
Strictly speaking, it would probably be quite hard to stand on Kepler-47c, as it’s probably a gas giant comparable to Neptune, so we imagined that Kepler-47c was in fact an Earthlike planet – after all, chances are that there is a planetary system out there like this. We considered how the radiation from the two stars hit the planet’s surface, mapping patterns of light and darkness.
Because the two stars in the Kepler-47c system are so different in mass, they produce radiation at very different wavelengths – the sunlike star emitting a spectrum that terrestrial plants would happily photosynthesise, and the other star emitting much more red and infrared radiation, which some forms of anaerobic bacteria would photosynthesise (see more here). So depending on the time of year and time of day, different organisms would take the lead in converting starlight to energy.
But it’s not just the light patterns that are interesting. The darkness patterns show that above the polar circles (on earth, these are the Arctic and Antarctic circles), summer and winter become rather peculiar.
Above the arctic circle on earth, winter begins when the sun sets, and stays set until winter ends a few months later. On our Tattoine planet, there are two stars in the sky, so the arctic winter begins when both stars drop below the horizon. But the planet orbits the centre of mass of the system, as do the stars. This means that depending on the arrangement of all three bodies, some years have a winter that is a few days too short, and others have winters that are a bit too long. If you’re an animal counting on the end of winter to end your hibernation cycle, you need to know whether this year’s winter will be long or short!
Judging by life on earth, it seems likely that animals will be able to develop instinctive and biochemical rhythms to cope with these fluctuations, just as we have circadian rhythms to cope with day and night time. In fact, some organisms on Earth already obey the influence of a second star – except it’s not really a second star, it’s just the Moon!
In short, life on circumbinary planets will be a slave to the rhythm, just like life on Earth. But there will be many more rhythms to choose from!