The NASA Kepler mission has discovered a circumbinary planet – a planet which orbits two stars – similar to that of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars.
The planet, designated Kepler-16b, is 200 light years from Earth, according to NASA, and is not thought to harbour life. It orbits both stars every 229 days, similar to Venus’ 225-day orbit. The larger parent star is 69pc the mass of Earth’s sun and the other is just 20pc the size of our sun.
As a result, unlike the desert planet of Tatooine in the Star Wars films, this planet is cold. It is thought to be the size of Saturn and made up of half rock and half gas.
Its discovery confirmed the existence of circumbinary planets and shows the diversity of planets that exist.
"This discovery confirms a new class of planetary systems that could harbour life," Kepler principal investigator William Borucki said.
"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."
The Kepler space telescope was used to find it, which measures the dips in brightness of more than 150,000 stars to find transiting planets. It’s the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-sized planets within the “habitable zone”, the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the planet. Kepler-16b is outside this zone as its coldness prevents liquid water from existing.
Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, led the research team.
Reacting to NASA’s findings, John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm Ltd., in San Francisco, noted that while filmmakers create things that have never been seen, he believes that scientific discoveries “prove to be more spectacular than anything we dare imagine.”
“There is no doubt these discoveries influence and inspire storytellers,” said Knoll.
“Their very existence serves as cause to dream bigger and open our minds to new possibilities beyond what we think we ‘know.’"
Photo below: In the Star Wars films, Tatooine is Luke Skywalker’s home planet