NASA spots Star Wars-like "Tatooine" planet orbiting two stars

NASA Kepler space telescope discerns planet that features dual sunsets

kelper 16b
Luke Skywalker phone home. Outside of Star Wars movies real-world astronomers haven't actually seen a planet orbiting two stars at the same times - until now.

NASA's star-gazing space telescope Kepler has spotted such a planet, dubbed Kepler-16b that like the fictional home of Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker's home,  Tatooine, Kepler-16b sees a double sunset as it circles a pair of stars approximately 200 light-years from Earth.

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"Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet -- a planet orbiting not one, but two stars," said Josh Carter of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a statement.  Carter is one of the authors that discovered Kepler-16b.  Laurance Doyle of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute is the lead author of the study.

The study which used photometric data from the NASA Kepler space telescope appears in the Sept. 15th issue of the journal Science and Carter is presenting the finding today at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

NASA's Kepler detected the planet through what is known as a planetary transit - an event where a star dims when a planet crosses in front of it. The planet's discovery was complicated by the fact that the two stars in the system eclipse each other, causing the total brightness to dim periodically, the group stated.

A few other planets have been suspected of orbiting around both members of a dual-star system, but the transits of the circumbinary planet have never been detected previously, the authors noted.

According to the authors  Kepler-16b weighs about a third as much as Jupiter and has a radius three-fourths that of Jupiter, making it similar to Saturn in both size and mass. It orbits its two parent stars every 229 days at a distance of 65 million miles -- similar to Venus' 225-day orbit. Both stars are smaller and cooler than our Sun. As a result, Kepler-16b is quite cold, with a surface temperature of around -100 to -150 degrees Fahrenheit, the Harvard-Smithsonian group stated.

This discovery confirms that Kepler-16b is an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas.

tatooine star wars
"We don't expect to hear from Luke Skywalker or find anything living there," NASA joked.

"This discovery is stunning," "Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality," said Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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