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

Duncan H. Forgan, Alexander Mead, Charles S. Cockell, John A. Raven

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Recently, the Kepler Space Telescope has detected several planets inorbit 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)465-478
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number3
Early online date28 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • Circumbinary
  • Darkness
  • Habitability
  • Photosynthesis


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