Ben Tofflemire believes that the most powerful part of his work is posing tough questions and pursuing the answers. One topic that Ben explores concerns binary stars, or two stars orbiting the same center of mass. Many stars similar to our own Sun exist in binary systems, yet little is known about how these dynamic environments impact planet formation. Since these systems are challenging to observe, the field has largely focused its energy on single-star systems. Recognizing this knowledge gap, Ben builds multi-faceted observational programs to understand the planet-making potential of binary systems.

In his fellowship, Ben will acquire data that refines the structure of young binary star systems, as well as their accompanying disks of dust and gas that create planets. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, he will map this disk material in a sample of young binary systems believed to be currently developing planets, and predict how the orbit of the two stars are shaping them. By characterizing these stellar neighborhoods, Ben will identify specific configurations that enable planets to form. As more powerful telescopes come online in the next decades with the purpose of detecting Earthlike planets, Ben’s work will help direct their gaze in the smartest possible places. In 2018, Ben received a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

“The known number of exoplanets generates many targets to pursue. Understanding the planet-forming potential of binary star systems is going to help us direct our resources toward the right objects, and obtain the highest yield for our effort.”