Video: Scientists find a planet that orbits two suns

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updated 9/15/2011 3:19:32 PM ET 2011-09-15T19:19:32

It's a real-life Tatooine. A spectacle made popular by the "Star Wars" saga — a planet with two suns — has now been confirmed in space for the first time, astronomers revealed.

Scientists using NASA's Kepler space telescope captured details of a giant planet in orbit around the pair of binary stars that make up the Kepler-16 system, which is about 200 light-years away.

"This discovery is stunning," said study co-author Alan Boss at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. "Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality." [See an image and video of Tatooine planet Kepler-16b]

When Tatooine was depicted on film, many scientists doubted that such planets could really exist. Now there's proof.

"It's possible that there's a real Tatooine out there," said John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at the special-effects firm Industrial Light and Magic, which was behind the "Star Wars" films. "Kepler-16b is unambiguous and dramatic proof that planets really do form around binaries."

The new discovery is expanding the bounds of what scientists, as well as filmmakers, can conceive, he said.

"Again and again we see that the science is stranger and cooler than fiction," Knoll said during a NASA press conference today. "The very existence of these discoveries gives us cause to dream bigger, to question our assumptions."

The planet, officially dubbed Kepler-16(AB)-b, passes in front of both stars in view of the satellite, regularly dimming their light. Each star also eclipses its companion as they orbit each other. Altogether, these motions allow scientists to precisely calculate the masses, radii and trajectories of all three bodies. 

The newfound planet keeps a distance from its stars nearly three-quarters that of the distance between the Earth and the sun. It is somewhat like Saturn in size, although nearly 50 percent denser, suggesting it is richer in heavy elements. [10 Real Alien Worlds That Could Be In 'Star Wars']

"Kepler-16(AB)-b is not habitable as we know it," said study lead author Laurance Doyle, an astrophysicist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

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This alien world travels on a nearly circular 229-day orbit around its two parent stars, Kepler-16A and Kepler-16B, which are about 69 and 20 percent as massive as the sun, respectively. The stars keep close to each other — only a fifth of the distance between Earth and the sun on average, which is closer than Mercury gets to the sun — completing an orbit around each other every 41 days, researchers added. [Infographic: New Planet is Like "Star Wars'" Tatooine]

Worlds that orbit around two stars, known as circumbinary planets, had been hinted at before. Stars in pairs both orbit around a point in space called barycenter, and researchers at times saw these orbits were slightly off, suggesting the presence of a planet tugging at both stars. However, Kepler-16(AB)-b is the first planet that scientists have detected directly passing in front of, or transiting, its stars, temporarily dimming their light.

Since the movements of this world and its two stars are all virtually confined to the same plane, the researchers suggest they all formed from the same disk of dust and gas. Planets that were captured from other star systems might be expected to orbit at a range of angles.

"Now that we know how to detect circumbinary planets, I think we are going to find a lot more rapidly," Doyle told Space.com.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Sept. 16 issue of the journal Science.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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