NASA has discovered a planet orbiting two stars about 200 light years from Earth, it announced on Thursday. The circumbinary planet is the first of its kind to be found, and it is bound to pique people's interest because of its resemblance to the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies.
The planet, dubbed Kepler-16b after the space telescope that discovered it, is about the same size as Saturn, and the stars it orbits are part of the constellation Cygnus. According to CNet, the larger star is yellow and 69 percent as massive as our sun, and the smaller star is red and about 20 percent the size of its partner. Scientists do not believe the planet is capable of sustaining life.
This is the first definitive detection of a circumbinary planet and the best example we have of a Tatooine-type world, Laurance Doyle, the lead author of a paper in the journal Science about the newly discovered planet, said, as quoted by CNet. Now, we don't expect Luke Skywalker or anything else to be living on Kepler-16b, but if you could visit there, you would see a sky with two suns, just like Luke did.
This discovery was made by NASA's Kepler space telescope, which was deployed in 2009 to find planets around distant suns. According to CNet, the chances of finding planets with orbits and suns similar to ours is 0.5 percent, but there are so many planets out there that Kepler was bound to find some.
Alan Boss, a member of the team working on the Kepler mission, called the discovery of Kepler-16b stunning.
Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality, Boss said in a statement quoted by CNet.
People who worked on the Star Wars films were impressed, too. Again and again, we see that the science is stranger and cooler than fiction, John Knoll, the visual effects supervisor for three of the six Star Wars films, told The Wall Street Journal.
Aside from the geeky shock of finding a planet that resembles something from Star Wars, the discovery is exceptional in a scientific sense because planets that orbit binary stars would normally be very unstable.
When you have a binary star with planets orbiting that, the binary star produces gravitational perturbations that can be very severe for planets, Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told CNet. Planets can get tossed out of the system or tossed into one of the stars.
But Kepler-16b seems to be stable, probably because it is so far from the stars it orbits that it effectively is feeling them as a single gravitational attraction, Laughlin said.
Lead author Doyle, who is a researcher at the SETI Institute's Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, explained the excitement another way.
This is an example of another planetary system, a completely different type that we've never seen before. That's why everyone's making a big deal out of it. Nobody's ever seen a place like this before, he told CNet. Then he added cheekily, With one exception -- I seem to remember seeing a place like this about 30 years ago in a galaxy far, far away.