Newly found planet has 2 suns; sound familiar, 'Star Wars' fans?
Imagine a planet that orbits two suns that, in turn, orbit each other. Two suns rising in the morning sky (when their orbits match up that way). Two suns setting at night. Occasional double-sun eclipses.
George Lucas imagined young Luke Skywalker on just such a two-sunned planet in the 1977 film "Star Wars." A little more than 30 years later, NASA has announced the discovery of a planet that orbits two stars, and it's only 200 light-years from Earth.
Talk about life imitating art.
Lucas called his imaginary planet Tatooine, but NASA is calling its real planet Kepler-16b. The planet was discovered by the space agency's Kepler mission — an arm of NASA that has its own sci-fi undertones. According to NASA's website, its mission is to search for planets where liquid water — and possibly life — might exist.
"This discovery confirms a new class of planetary system that could harbor life," Kepler principal investigator William Borucki said in a statement. "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."
However, don't expect Earthlings to enjoy the double sunsets of planet Kepler 16-b in the near, or distant, future. Scientists say the planet, which is about the size of Saturn, is not considered to be habitable. It's simply too cold to allow liquid water to exist on its surface. Although the planet does orbit two stars, they are both significantly smaller than Earth's sun.
Oh, well. It still looks cool in this artist's imagining of the planet with two suns.
-- Deborah Netburn
Image: NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt
Video: This artist's movie illustrates Kepler-16b, the first directly detected circumbinary planet, which is a planet that orbits two stars. The movie begins by showing the gaseous surface of the rotating planet then pans out to show the stars it orbits. Credit: NASA.