In the midst of all that excitement surrounding the Kepler data release, it was easy to overlook the article by Martin & Spruit, Inflated hot Jupiters from merger events, that showed up on astro-ph earlier this month. This paper proposes a sure-to-ruffle-feathers explanation for the radius anomalies of the hot Jupiters. The idea is that stellar mergers (arising from orbital decay in very close binaries) shed angular momentum via an “excretion” disk, from which one or more short-period giant planets manages to form. In this picture, short-period, anomalously inflated planets are large because they are young — their formation dates to the binary star merger that created their parent star, and they are headed inward for destruction on timescales significantly shorter than the typical several-billion year age of planet-bearing main-sequence stars.
Image Source: Tylenda et al. 2010.
It’s believed that the anomalous novae V1309 Sco (which occurred in 2008) and V838 Mon (which made a big splash in 2002, and whose light echo is shown in the image at the top of the post) were both caused by binary mergers. In the case of V1309 Sco, the more massive of the two progenitor stars was probably similar in mass to the Sun, whereas for V838 Mon, a primary of order 8 solar masses was involved. Numerical simulations, such as the ones shown below by D’Souza et al. (2006), suggest that two distinct stars merge into a single star surrounded by a disk-like structure over an action-packed phase that lasts ~10 orbits.
The idea that merging stars can give rise to planets shows up prominently in the literature in the 1980s, with a series of papers in Soviet Astronomy by A. V. Tutukov, who had a number of speculative ideas regarding planet detection and planetary systems that have turned out to be quite on the mark — he did detailed calculations of the prospective yield of M-dwarf transit surveys, and he argued that ~25% of stars should harbor planetary systems. In several papers (including here) he advocated the idea that excretion disks can give rise to planet formation.
It occurred to me that in the event that stellar mergers do indeed serve as an effective formation channel for short-period planets, then blue stragglers should be very high-grade ore for photometric transit searches. The blue stragglers are main-sequence stars in globular clusters that lie above the main-sequence turn-off in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and which are generally found near the cluster core. It’s believed that they owe their relative youth to being the product of binary mergers.
One of the most important early exoplanet-related results was the Gilliland et al. 2000 HST photometric survey of the rich nearby globular cluster 47 Tucanae. The Hubble telescope was trained on the cluster for 8.3 days, and time-series photometry (taken through two filters) was analyzed for ~34,000 individual stars. If the occurrence rate of hot Jupiters in 47 Tuc was similar to the occurrence rate in the solar neighborhood, then 17 transit planets were to be expected. None were found. This null result is generally attributed to the cluster’s low metallicity and to the possibility that planet formation was inhibited by the dynamical interactions and intense UV radiation that occurred during the cluster’s star formation phase.
A close up look at the 47 Tucanae color-magnitude diagram indicates that the 2-color HST imaging of cluster contains about twenty blue stragglers. Interestingly, it’s not entirely clear whether the blue stragglers have been folded for transits. In the Gilliland et al. 2000 paper, it appears that only the conventional main-sequence stars in the cluster were included in the analysis. The paper states: “For the results discussed further below only the 34,091 stars falling within a bright main-sequence box as shown were analyzed for time series.”
If hot Jupiters are commonly forming from binary merger events, then it seems like there should be a good chance that there could be a transit among the 20-odd blue stragglers observed with HST. Because this handful of stars are much smaller than the red stars at the same luminosity, the transit depths could likely be detectable, given the quality of the HST photometry and the brightness (I=16-17) of these stars. If the planet occurrence rate for merger remnants is 50% one would expect to find one transit among the tweny stars, given the ~10% a-priori geometric probability of transit. As a first step, certainly, it’ll be interesting to see whether these stars were analyzed in any of the follow-up work that was done with the Gilliland et al. dataset.