Discovered: A Planet Orbiting Two Suns – A Real-Life Tatooine

It’ a great planet to get a tan on, except for the minor detail that you may not make it back. A real-life Tatooine planet, orbiting two stars, has been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This strange world is 200 light years away.

Tatooine is the name of the fictional planet of the Star Wars saga, where much of the story is based.

An artist's conception of the two-star planet - a real life Tatooine. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A Real-Life Tatooine

The discovery is stunning, since this is the first time such an object is being discovered. The planet is a giant one, slightly larger than Saturn, but made up of heavy elements. It orbits a binary star system. This marvellous system is named the Kepler-16 system, according to the Kepler Telescope’s cataloguing scheme.

This settles once and for all the question as to whether planets can really orbit binary star systems. The planet, Kepler 16b, is absolute proof that such a thing can happen.

The Star Wars team is thrilled. Visual effects supervisor at the Industrial Light and Magic firm, the company behind the Star Wars effects, John Knoll, says:

It’s possible that there’s a real Tatooine out there. Kepler 16b is unambiguous and dramatic proof that planets really do form around binaries.

How it was discovered

The planet was discovered by the so-called Transit Method. The exoplanet was discovered by noting the dimming of the stars light as the planet went in front of it. One of the stars is dimmer than the other and this too causes dimming of the brighter star’s light. Using these two effects and also knowing the radial velocity of the stars, the mass of the stars and the planet can be calculated. It is found that Kepler-16b is denser than Saturn, containing many heavy elements. It completes one orbit in 229 days. The masses of the stars, Kepler-16A and Kepler-16B, are 69% and 20% the solar mass, respectively. They orbit each other in 41 days. The three objects lie on the same plane, suggesting that they were created from the same cloud of gas and that Kepler-16b is not a captured planet.

The report came out in the journal Science’ today.

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