Binary system

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A binary system is a system of two astronomical bodies which are close enough that their gravitational attraction causes them to orbit each other around a barycenter (also see animated examples). More restrictive definitions require that this common center of mass is not located within the interior of either object, in order to exclude the typical planet–satellite systems and planetary systems.


The most common binary systems are binary stars and binary asteroid, but brown dwarfs, planets, neutron stars, black holes and galaxies can also form binaries.

A multiple system is like a binary system but consists of three or more objects such as for trinary stars and trinary asteroids.


In a binary system, the brighter object is referred to as primary , and the other the secondary.

They are also classified based on orbit. Wide binaries are objects with orbits that keep them apart from one another. They evolve separately and have very little effect on each other. Close binaries are close to each other and are able to transfer mass from one another.

They can also be classified based on how we observe them. Visual binaries are two stars separated enough that they can be viewed through a telescope or binoculars.

Eclipsing binaries are where the objects' orbits are at an angle that when one passes in front of the other it causes an eclipse, as seen from Earth.

Astrometric binaries are objects that seem to move around nothing as their companion object cannot be identified, it can only be inferred. The companion object may not be bright enough or may be hidden in the glare from the primary object.

A related classification though not a binary system is optical binary, which refers to objects that are so close together in the sky that they appear to be a binary system, but are not. Such objects merely appear to be close together, but lie at different distances from the Solar System. [1] [2]

Binary companion (minor planets)

The dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon are often described as a binary system in the Solar System, which orbit the Sun. Pluto-Charon system-new.gif
The dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon are often described as a binary system in the Solar System, which orbit the Sun.

When binary minor planets are similar in size, they may be called "binary companions" instead of referring to the smaller body as a satellite. [3] Good examples of true binary companions are the 90 Antiope and the 79360 Sila–Nunam systems. Pluto and its largest moon Charon are sometimes described as a binary system because the barycenter (center of mass) of the two objects is not inside either of them. [4]

See also

Related Research Articles

Double planet A binary system where two planetary-mass objects share an orbital axis external to both

In astronomy, a double planet is a binary satellite system where both objects are planets, or planetary-mass objects, that share an orbital axis external to both planetary bodies.

Eclipse Astronomical event where one body is hidden by another

An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object or spacecraft is temporarily obscured, by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer. This alignment of three celestial objects is known as a syzygy. Apart from syzygy, the term eclipse is also used when a spacecraft reaches a position where it can observe two celestial bodies so aligned. An eclipse is the result of either an occultation or a transit.

Solar System The Sun, its planets and their moons

The Solar System is the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it, either directly or indirectly. Of the objects that orbit the Sun directly, the largest are the eight planets, with the remainder being smaller objects, the dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Of the objects that orbit the Sun indirectly—the natural satellites—two are larger than the smallest planet, Mercury.

Pluto Dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt of the Solar System

Pluto is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. It was the first and the largest Kuiper belt object to be discovered. After Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was declared to be the ninth planet from the Sun. Beginning in the 1990s, its status as a planet was questioned following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt and the scattered disc, including the dwarf planet Eris. This led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 to formally define the term "planet"—excluding Pluto and reclassifying it as a dwarf planet.

Charon (moon) Largest natural satellite of Pluto

Charon, known as (134340) Pluto I, is the largest of the five known natural satellites of the dwarf planet Pluto. It has a mean radius of 606 km (377 mi). Charon is the sixth-largest known trans-Neptunian object after Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Gonggong. It was discovered in 1978 at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., using photographic plates taken at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS).

Natural satellite Astronomical body that orbits a planet

A natural satellite is in the most common usage, an astronomical body that orbits a planet, dwarf planet, or small solar system body. While natural satellites are often colloquially referred to as moons, there is only the Moon of Earth.

Tidal locking Situation in which an astronomical objects orbital period matches its rotational period

Tidal locking, in the best-known case, occurs when an orbiting astronomical body always has the same face toward the object it is orbiting. This is known as synchronous rotation: the tidally locked body takes just as long to rotate around its own axis as it does to revolve around its partner. For example, the same side of the Moon always faces the Earth, although there is some variability because the Moon's orbit is not perfectly circular. Usually, only the satellite is tidally locked to the larger body. However, if both the difference in mass between the two bodies and the distance between them are relatively small, each may be tidally locked to the other; this is the case for Pluto and Charon.

Barycenter Center of mass of multiple bodies orbiting each other

In astronomy, the barycenter is the center of mass of two or more bodies that orbit one another and is the point about which the bodies orbit. A barycenter is a dynamical point, not a physical object. It is an important concept in fields such as astronomy and astrophysics. The distance from a body's center of mass to the barycenter can be calculated as a two-body problem.

Minor-planet moon Natural satellite of a minor planet

A minor-planet moon is an astronomical object that orbits a minor planet as its natural satellite. As of October 2021, there are 441 minor planets known or suspected to have moons. Discoveries of minor-planet moons are important because the determination of their orbits provides estimates on the mass and density of the primary, allowing insights of their physical properties that is generally not otherwise possible.

Occultation occlusion of an object by another object that passes between it and the observer

An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer. The term is often used in astronomy, but can also refer to any situation in which an object in the foreground blocks from view (occults) an object in the background. In this general sense, occultation applies to the visual scene observed from low-flying aircraft when foreground objects obscure distant objects dynamically, as the scene changes over time.

Definition of <i>planet</i> History of the word "planet" and its definition

The definition of planet, since the word was coined by the ancient Greeks, has included within its scope a wide range of celestial bodies. Greek astronomers employed the term asteres planetai, "wandering stars", for star-like objects which apparently moved over the sky. Over the millennia, the term has included a variety of different objects, from the Sun and the Moon to satellites and asteroids.

Moons of Pluto Natural satellite orbiting Pluto

The dwarf planet Pluto has five natural satellites. In order of distance from Pluto, they are Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Charon, the largest, is mutually tidally locked with Pluto, and is massive enough that Pluto–Charon is sometimes considered a double dwarf planet.

Outline of astronomy

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to astronomy:

Dwarf planet Planetary-mass object

A dwarf planet is a small planetary-mass object that is in direct orbit of the Sun – something smaller than any of the eight classical planets, but still a world in its own right. The prototypical dwarf planet is Pluto. The interest of dwarf planets to planetary geologists is that, being possibly differentiated and geologically active bodies, they may display planetary geology, an expectation borne out by the 2015 New Horizons mission to Pluto.

IAU definition of <i>planet</i> Formal definition of a planet in the context of the Solar System as ratified by the IAU in 2006

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined in August 2006 that, in the Solar System, a planet is a celestial body that:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium, and
  3. has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.
Primary (astronomy)

A primary is the main physical body of a gravitationally bound, multi-object system. This object constitutes most of that system's mass and will generally be located near the system's barycenter.

Retrograde and prograde motion Relative directions of orbit or rotation

Retrograde motion in astronomy is, in general, orbital or rotational motion of an object in the direction opposite the rotation of its primary, that is, the central object. It may also describe other motions such as precession or nutation of an object's rotational axis. Prograde or direct motion is more normal motion in the same direction as the primary rotates. However, "retrograde" and "prograde" can also refer to an object other than the primary if so described. The direction of rotation is determined by an inertial frame of reference, such as distant fixed stars.

This glossary of astronomy is a list of definitions of terms and concepts relevant to astronomy and cosmology, their sub-disciplines, and related fields. Astronomy is concerned with the study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth. The field of astronomy features an extensive vocabulary and a significant amount of jargon.

Satellite system (astronomy) Set of gravitationally bound objects in orbit

A satellite system is a set of gravitationally bound objects in orbit around a planetary mass object or minor planet, or its barycenter. Generally speaking, it is a set of natural satellites (moons), although such systems may also consist of bodies such as circumplanetary disks, ring systems, moonlets, minor-planet moons and artificial satellites any of which may themselves have satellite systems of their own. Some bodies also possess quasi-satellites that have orbits gravitationally influenced by their primary, but are generally not considered to be part of a satellite system. Satellite systems can have complex interactions including magnetic, tidal, atmospheric and orbital interactions such as orbital resonances and libration. Individually major satellite objects are designated in Roman numerals. Satellite systems are referred to either by the possessive adjectives of their primary, or less commonly by the name of their primary. Where only one satellite is known, or it is a binary with a common centre of gravity, it may be referred to using the hyphenated names of the primary and major satellite.


  1. "Binary Star Systems: Classification and Evolution".
  2. Lehmann, Holger. Analysis of Spectroscopic Binaries. Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg.
  3. "Satellites and Companions of Minor Planets". IAU / Minor Planet Center. 2009-09-17. Archived from the original on 2011-01-21. Retrieved 2011-01-08.
  4. Ian O'Neill (8 August 2014). "Can We Call Pluto and Charon a 'Binary Planet' Yet?". Discovery News. Retrieved 15 July 2015.