Wide Binaries as a Modified Gravity test: prospects for detecting triple-system contamination
Several recent studies have shown that velocity differences of very wide binary stars, measured to high precision with GAIA, can potentially provide an interesting test for modified-gravity theories which attempt to emulate dark matter; in essence, MOND-like theories (with external field effect included) predict that wide binaries (wider than \(\sim 7\) kAU) should orbit \(\sim 15\%\) faster than Newtonian for similar orbit parameters; such a shift is readily detectable in principle in the sample of 9,000 candidate systems selected from GAIA EDR3 by Pittordis and Sutherland (2022; PS22). However, the main obstacle at present is the observed “fat tail” of candidate wide-binary systems with velocity differences at \(\sim 1.5 - 6 \times\) circular velocity; this tail population cannot be bound pure binary systems, but a possible explanation of the tail is triple or quadruple systems with unresolved or undetected additional star(s). While this tail can be modelled and subtracted, obtaining an accurate model for the triple population is crucial to obtain a robust test for modified gravity. Here we explore prospects for observationally constraining the triple population: we simulate a population of hierarchical triples “observed” as in PS22 at random epochs and viewing angles; then evaluate various possible methods for detecting the third star, including GAIA astrometry, RV drift, and several imaging methods from direct Rubin images, speckle imaging and coronagraphic imaging. Results are encouraging, typically 90 percent of the triple systems in the key regions of parameter space are detectable; there is a moderate “dead zone” of cool brown-dwarf companions at \(\sim 25-100\) AU separation which are not detectable with any of our baseline methods. A large but feasible observing campaign can clarify the triple/quadruple population and make the gravity test decisive.