Last week’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society is still much in the news, and I want to cover several more stories from the Austin conclave this week, starting with yet another circumbinary planetary system, in which a planet orbits two stars. Not long ago we looked at Kepler-16b, a circumbinary planet orbiting two stars in this mode — as opposed to a binary system where planets orbit one or the other of the two stars. Kepler-16b was interesting but perhaps unusual given the perceived difficulties in finding stable orbits around close binaries.

But things are happening quickly on the exoplanet front. Needing more information about the prevalence of this kind of planet and the range of orbital and physical properties involved in such systems, we now get news of not one but two more, Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b. Note the nomenclature: We could as easily call these Kepler-34(AB)b and Kepler-35(AB)b. We confront the real possibility that ‘two sun’ systems are not necessarily rarities. At least, that’s the view of William Welsh (San Diego State University), who presented the findings at the AAS meeting:

“It was once believed that the environment around a pair of stars would be too chaotic for a circumbinary planet to form, but now that we have confirmed three such planets, we know that it is possible, if not probable, that there are at least millions in the Galaxy.”

Here’s what we know about these worlds. Kepler-34b orbits two Sun-like stars every 289 days, while the two stars in question orbit and eclipse each other every 28 days. At 4,900 light years from Earth, the planet is in the constellation Cygnus, as is Kepler-35b, although the latter is more distant at 5400 light years. Both are thought to be Saturn-sized gas giants. Kepler-35b orbits its two stars (80 and 89 percent of the Sun’s mass) every 131 days, with its central stars orbiting and eclipsing each other every 21 days. Between these worlds and Kepler-16b, we are building our knowledge of a new class of planets, one Kepler may supplement with still more examples.

Image: Twin suns would yield not only spectacular visual effects but climate changes that could be equally breathtaking. Credit: Lynette R. Cook.

Laurance Doyle (SETI Institute), a co-author of the paper on this work, speaks of “…the new field of comparative circumbinary planetology,” which he believes is now established by these findings. Here is yet more fodder for science fiction writers looking for unique settings, for planets in such orbits would receive continually changing amounts of sunlight. The effects on local weather patterns alone would be enough to spin an absorbing tale, a year’s worth of seasonal change packed into short and dramatically changing time frames. “The effects of these climate swings on the atmospheric dynamics, and ultimately on the evolution of life on habitable circumbinary planets,” says Welsh, “is a fascinating topic that we are just beginning to explore.”

The paper is Welsh et al., “Transiting circumbinary planets Kepler-34 b and Kepler-35 b,” published online by Nature on 11 January, 2012 (abstract).