The possibility for alien life increases when two stars are pushed together by a third, according to new research announced Tuesday.
Astronomers at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. developed a model that found a “habitable zone” is larger near two stars that are pushed together by a passing third star.
Their findings were published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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The habitable zone, sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone,” is the area around a star where temperatures aren’t too hot or too cold.
That area is the only place scientists believe life can develop because the conditions allow for the formation of complex molecules and water.
Though scientists have typically looked at solar systems around single stars, like Earth’s, Dr. Richard Parker, from the University of Sheffield, and Bethany Wootton, an undergraduate at the University of York, looked at binary systems — solar systems around two stars — that are still forming.
Using computer simulations to model interactions between stars in young clusters, Wootton and Parker calculated how those interactions affected binary pairs.
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They found many of the pairs had their habitable zones expanded when the stars themselves were squeezed together by other stars passing by.
In a typical cluster, also called a “stellar nursery,” there are about 350 binaries. Wootton and Parker found that about 20 of them would squeeze together.
A few of the pairs’ habitable zones even overlapped, creating even larger areas where life is possible.
“The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most fundamental questions in modern science, and we need every bit of evidence we can find to help answer it,” Wootton said in a statement.
“Our model suggests that there are more binary systems where planets sit in Goldilocks zones than we thought, increasing the prospects for life. So those worlds beloved of science fiction writers – where two suns shine in their skies above alien life – look a lot more likely now,” she added.