Star Wars Gets Real as Planet With Two Suns Found By Astronomers
The 1977 movie ‘Star Wars’ featured a planet with two suns called Tatooine. Now scientists said they’ve found the first real two-sun planet 200 light years away from Earth.
“After 35 years, science fiction has finally become reality,” said Alan Boss, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and an author of a study on the planet released yesterday by the journal Science. “We have been waiting for a long time for one of these to be found.”
The new planet, called Kepler-16b, is about the size and mass of Saturn, according to the study, and was found using NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler-16b moves in a circular orbit 65 million miles from its suns. Unlike Tatooine, the hot, desert planet portrayed in ‘Star Wars,’ Kepler-16b is far too cold to support life, with temperatures about 100 degrees centigrade lower than Earth, Boss said yesterday in a telephone interview.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler mission has found more than 1,200 planets so far, while another 600 have been discovered by ground-based efforts, Boss said. Other planets orbiting two suns may soon be detected, he said.
Search for More
“I am going to guess there are 2 million more” such dual- sun planets, said Laurance Doyle, the lead researcher on the Kepler-16b report and an astrophysicist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. “We have two or three candidates right now we have to confirm.”
There is no theoretical reason, if it had brighter suns, why such a planet couldn’t support life, Boss said. “It is just a question of having one where the sun is a little brighter so it will be hot enough to have liquid water,” he said.
The Kepler-16 planet’s two suns are different sizes, with the larger one glowing orange and the smaller sun a more reddish color, Boss said. Some days the two suns rise and set simultaneously, while at other times they rise or set a couple of hours apart, he said.
While the main purpose of the Kepler telescope is to search for Earth-like planets, Doyle took the lead in using the instrument to search for planets orbiting two suns. He said he has been trying to find such a planet for 20 years.
The search involved first using the telescope to find so- called “eclipsing binary” stars that are lined up and occasionally cover each other in the plane of the instrument.
‘Dips’ in Light
Then the researchers searched for other cases of binary stars where there were additional periodic dips in light intensity, indicating another object might be present.
By about a year ago, Doyle and a colleague had found several such dips, he said yesterday in an interview. Detailed calculations on the most promising example ruled out the possibility of three stars, proving it was a planet in existence with two suns, he said.
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