Thursday, September 15, 2011

Real-life 'Star Wars' planet seen

By Alan Boyle

Planet-hunters say they've detected the first world that's absolutely known to circle two stars, like Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine in the fictional "Star Wars" saga.

"Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality," said Carnegie Institution astronomer Alan Boss, a member of the team for NASA's Kepler mission and a co-author of a paper on the discovery in the journal Science.


Luke probably couldn't stand on the surface of Kepler-16b, which orbits a red and an orange star in the constellation Cygnus, 200 light-years from Earth. It certainly wouldn't be a desert. The planet is most like Saturn in our own solar system — too cold for life as we know it, most likely with a thick, gassy atmosphere. "This one's just outside the habitable zone," the paper's lead author, SETI Institute astronomer Laurance Doyle, told me.

But if Han Solo were to park the Millennium Falcon on one of Kepler-16b's hypothetical moons, there'd be plenty of double-sunsets. In fact, because the two suns orbit each other, each sunset would bring a different configuration, with the small red sun occasionally crossing over the larger orange one. "You might get two eclipses every 41 days," Doyle said.


binary-star systems, which make up more than half of our Milky Way's stellar population


Doyle says that anyone with a good telescope (8-inch mirror or larger) and a CCD camera could record a Kepler 16 planetary transit next June 28 from China and other parts of northeastern Asia. The light from the star system would be seen to dip by about 1.7 percent, if observers train their telescopes on the stars at just the right time. "They'll be able to measure the next transit since the discovery of the planet," Doyle said.


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