Study Suggests Possibility of Life on Other Planets

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The universe may soon get a little less lonely. Astronomers Manfred Cuntz and Jason Eberle recently published a paper in the American Astronomical Society’s Astrophysical Journal Letters that explores the possible existence of a planet in the v Octantis star system, 69 light years (400 trillion miles) from Earth. Previous observers have suggested that a planet may exist in v Octantis, a binary star system visible only from the southern half of the globe. The study by Dr. Cuntz, a physics associate professor, and Eberle, a recent doctoral graduate, indicates there’s a significant chance that it is in a retrograde orbit. Such planets orbit the primary star in a different direction than the orbit of the secondary star. A retrograde orbit is unheard of for a planet in an extrasolar planetary system but does occur for some moons in our solar system. If confirmed, the existence of such a planet would enhance the search for planets in multiple stellar systems, including those that could potentially support life. “If our theoretical studies turn out to be applicable to the v Octantis system, they will provide evidence for the first case of a planet in a retrograde orbit in a stellar binary system,” Cuntz says. Previously, retrograde planetary orbits have been detected for planets around single stars in regard to the stellar rotational axis. The research team’s findings likely will attract widespread attention, according to another expert in the field. “The results of Eberle and Cuntz are important for the big hot topic of astronomy, namely extrasolar planets, and especially interesting for the dynamics of planets in double stars,” says Rudolf Dvorak, a professor at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Vienna. “Note that in the solar neighborhood, more than 60 percent of the stars are not single.” The UT Arlington researchers’ study finds a slim chance that the suggested planet is in a prograde orbit, traveling in the same direction as the primary star’s partner star. This is unlikely, however, since it would require detailed assumptions concerning the orbital parameters of the planet.

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