I’m collecting a number of documents on gravitational wave detection and unusual concepts regarding their use by advanced civilizations. It’s going to take a while for me to go through all these, but as I mentioned in the last post, I plan to zero in on the intriguing notion that civilizations with abilities far beyond our own might use gravitational waves rather than the electromagnetic spectrum to serve as the backbone of their communication system. It’s a science fictional concept for sure, though there may be ways it could be imagined for a sufficiently advanced culture.

For today, though, let’s look at a new survey that targets highly unusual planets. Binaries Escorted by Orbiting Planets has an acronym I can get into: BEBOP. It awakens the Charlie Parker in me; I can almost smell the smoky air of a mid-20th century jazz club and hear the clinking of glasses above Parker’s stunning alto work. I was thinking about the great sax player because I had just watched, for about the fifth time, Clint Eastwood’s superb 1988 film Bird, whose soundtrack is, of course, fabulous.

On the astronomy front, the BEBOP survey is a radial velocity sweep for circumbinary planets, those intriguing worlds, rare but definitely out there, that orbit around two stars in tight binary systems. Beginning in 2013, BEBOP targeted 47 eclipsing binaries, using data from the CORALIE spectrograph on the Swiss Euler Telescope at La Silla, Chile. This is intriguing because what we know about circumbinary planets has largely come from detections based on transit analysis. Radial velocity work has uncovered planets orbiting one star in a wide binary configuration but until now, not both.

Image: Artist’s visualization of a circumbinary planet. Credit: Ohio State University / Getty Images.

The new work adds data from the HARPS spectrograph at La Silla and the ESPRESSO spectrograph at Paranal to confirm one of two planets at TOI-1338/BEBOP-1. Thus we have radial velocity evidence for the gas giant BEBOP-1 c, massing in the range of 65 Earth masses, in an orbit around the binary of 215 days. A second world, referenced as TOI-1338 b because it shows up only in transit data from TESS, complements the RV find, making this only the second circumbinary system known to host multiple planets. TOI-1338 b is 21.8 times as massive as the Earth and as a transiting world could well be a candidate for atmospheric studies by the James Webb Space Telescope.

But BEBOP-1 c is the planet that stands out. I think I am safe in calling a co-author on this paper, David Martin (Ohio State University), a master of understatement when he describes the problems in extracting radial velocity data on a circumbinary world. After all, we’re relying on the tiniest gravitational effects flagged by minute changes in wavelength, and now we have to factor in multiple sets of stellar spectra. Here’s Martin:

“When a planet orbits two stars, it can be a bit more complicated to find because both of its stars are also moving through space. So how we can detect these stars’ exoplanets, and the way in which they are formed, are all quite different. Whereas people were previously able to find planets around single stars using radial velocities pretty easily, this technique was not being successfully used to search for binaries.”

Nice work indeed. Circumbinary planets are what the paper describes as ‘harsh environments’ for planet formation given the gravitational matrix in which such formation occurs, and thus we should be able to use the growing number of such systems (now 14 including this one) in the study of how planets form and also migrate. BEBOP should be a useful survey in providing accurate masses for planets in systems we’ve already discovered with the transit method.

Image: This is Figure 3 from the paper, offering an overview of the BEBOP-1 system. Caption: The BEBOP-1 system is shown along with the extent of the system’s habitable zone (HZ) calculated using the Multiple Star HZ website. The conservative habitable zone is shown by the dark green region, while the optimistic habitable zone is shown by the light green region. The binary stars are marked by the blue star symbols in the centre. The red shaded region denotes the instability region surrounding the binary stars as described by Holman and Wiegert. BEBOP-1 c’s orbit is shown by the red orbit models…shaded from the 50th to 99th percentiles. TOI-1338 b’s orbit is shown by the yellow models, and is also based on 500 random samples drawn from the posterior in its discovery paper. Credit: Standing et al.

Learning more about how planets in such perturbed environments emerge should advance the study of planet growth around single stars. It’s likely that the increased transit probabilities of circumbinary planets should play into our efforts to study planetary atmospheres as well. And while transits should provide the bulk of new discoveries in this space, radial velocity follow-ups should expand our knowledge of individual systems, being less dependent on orbital periods and inclination. BEBOP presages a productive use of these complementary observing methods.

The paper is Standing et al., “Radial-velocity discovery of a second planet in the TOI-1338/BEBOP-1 circumbinary system,” Nature Astronomy 12 June 2023 (full text). See also Martin et al., “The BEBOP radial-velocity survey for circumbinary planets I. Eight years of CORALIE observations of 47 single-line eclipsing binaries and abundance constraints on the masses of circumbinary planets,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 624, A68 (April 2019), 45 pp. Abstract.