NASA detects planet orbiting two suns

September 15, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
NASA released some facts today that sound like fiction, the existence of a world with a double sunset. Its Kepler space telescope found a planet orbiting two stars.

Until now, this was science fiction, the existence of a planet orbiting two suns. George Lucas created such a place as Luke Skywalker's home in Star Wars. Now, we may wonder if he had an inside tip.

We asked John Knoll with Industrial Light and Magic how George Lucas knew about this before NASA. "I don't think he did," he replied.

And yet, NASA had the Oscar-winner in the house Thursday as it announced their major discovery, the first confirmation of a real planet orbiting two suns, a circum-binary planet.

"It's an indication of what's possible, something entirely new," said Lawrence Doyle of the SETI Institute.

It's one that literally opens a universe of possibilities for finding Earth-like planets, according to this team.

"Since half the stars in the sky you look at are binaries, this doubles the number of potential habitable planets," said JPL Project scientist Nick Gautier.

The Kepler telescope has been looking at only a small portion of the sky, 156,000 stars in a galaxy with more than a billion of them. It has already found hundreds of planets by detecting changes of the brightness of those stars when planets pass between them and Earth.

We know this new planet, Kepler 16b, is about 200 light years away and a gas giant orbiting two suns, one smaller, one larger. Life as we know it cannot exist there, but what a view it must have?

"You have not just the sun going across the sky, but you have it moving with another star, and they eclipse each other," Doyle described.

Strangely enough, if we do find life on other worlds, it may very well be on a moon instead of a planet. Potentially, there are more moons. So far, Kepler has not found any. If it does, it will be even bigger news that the Kepler 16b announcement.

"Again, if I'm a betting man, there are more moons. And, if more moons, then more places for potential life," said Gautier.

In short, NASA may need to hand out more Star Wars clips sometime soon.


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