NASA’s Kepler finds Star Wars world

NASA scientists have found a planet, in our own galaxy, and not so far far away, that has two suns just like Tatooine in Star Wars. Their Kepler space telescope detected the world circling a pair of stars 200 light years away from Earth.

Two suns in the sunset
Two suns in the sunset

It means any aliens there would enjoy the spectacle of a double sunrise and a double sunset, as Luke Skywalker did from his home planet in the celebrated series of movies.

The new world, which has the label Kepler-16b rather than an exotic name, is a cold gasball of a planet rather than a desert world like the fictional Tatooine.

But the similarity was great enough for NASA to invite a representative of the movie series’ makers Lucasfilm to join the panel that announced the discovery to the world tonight. And it marks a breakthrough for astronomy because it is the only one of more than 670 alien planets discovered outside our own solar system to orbit a double star.

It is not the first example of a Star Wars discovery in space. One of Saturn’s moons, called Mimas, has a remarkable resemblance to the Death Star thanks to a giant crater on its surface.

Observations with the planet-hunting space telescope show that Kepler-16b is similar in size to our own neighbour Saturn. It circles its twin suns once every 229 days at a distance of 65 million miles, putting it in an equivalent orbit to Venus around our own Sun.

But because the two stars are smaller and less hot than the Sun, the new planet is a cold place with temperatures as low as -100 C. Any life there could not be as we know it.

The new planet was discovered as it passed in front of the stars, causing an almost imperceptible dip in their brightness at regular intervals.

It was a complicated observation to make because the stars already eclipse each other, so that their brightness is constantly changing anyway. The two stars themselves are 21 million miles apart and circle each other every 41 days.

After Kepler’s discovery, a 60-inch telescope at the Whipple Observatory in Arizona made follow-up observations to confirm what the planet it like.

Josh Carter, a member of the discovery team, said: “Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet – a planet orbiting not one, but two stars. Once again, we’re finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems nature can create.”

A previous study by scientists using another space telescope called Spitzer suggested that planets should be found orbiting double stars because the observatory’s heat-seeking eye detected around them the sign of dusty disks from which solar systems form.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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