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Kepler, NASA’s exoplanet hunter extraordinaire, has confirmed the existence of the first planet orbiting two suns, not unlike Luke’s homeworld Tatooine from the Star Wars films! Unlike Tatooine, however, the planet –named Kepler-16b – is a cold Saturn-sized gas giant unlikely to harbor life. Still, it showcases the variety of planetary systems to be discovered and is another step from science fiction to science fact!
An animation of the Kepler-16b system is shown above.
“This discovery confirms a new class of planetary systems that could harbor life. Given that most stars in our galaxy are part of a binary system, this means the opportunities for life are much broader than if planets form only around single stars. This milestone discovery confirms a theory that scientists have had for decades but could not prove until now.”
– Kepler Principal Investigator William Borucki
This double-star system, 200 light-years from Earth, has been found to have a circumbinary planet through observations of the brightness fluctuations caused by the planet passing in front of the stars from Kepler’s point of view.
Both stars in the system are smaller than our own Sun.
“Most of what we know about the sizes of stars comes from such eclipsing binary systems, and most of what we know about the size of planets comes from transits,” said Doyle, who also is the lead author and a Kepler participating scientist. “Kepler-16 combines the best of both worlds, with stellar eclipses and planetary transits in one system.”