Found: A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from. ~Luke Skywalker

60 parsecs from here, dear galleons, a lone planet orbits two small suns.

Yes, we have finally found Tatooine:

The Kepler spacecraft has been gathering data since 2009 on the part of the sky containing the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, looking for planets beyond our own solar system. And we’ve just found the very first planet known to orbit a binary star system.

Kepler-16 is a binary system consisting of a class K orange dwarf and a class M red dwarf. Neither is as large as our own sun, and the two orbit their common center of mass every 41 days.

Researchers at the SETI institute have been looking very closely at binary systems like Kepler-16, systems that seem to contain out of sequence eclipses. According to Laurance Doyle, leader of the SETI researchers, most of these anomalies turned out to be the signs of three star systems.

But one was different- Kepler-16. The extra eclipses dimmed the stars only slightly, indicative of a planet instead of a third star.

Kepler-16b is the only planet in orbit around Kepler-16’s two stars. Of similar size to Saturn, Kepler-16b is a gas giant as well, but it’s larger mass indicates that it is composed of rock as well as gas. It orbits its stars every 229 days, putting it at about 70 percent of the distance between Earth and our sun.

What’s interesting about that is that it actually falls inside the distance once considered the inner limit of planet formation in a binary star system. It was thought that, in order to have a stable circumbinary orbit, a planet would have to be 7 times as far from the stars as the stars are from one another. Little Kepler-16b is hanging out at about half that distance.

Unfortunately, don’t get your hopes up for a drink at the Mos Eisley Cantina any time soon. Kepler-16b is probably much too cold to sustain life. More like Hoth than Tatooine, really.

You know what that means…


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