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Planet of the suns

Astronomers hail extraordinary discovery of Star Wars planet with two suns

It is one of the most memorable images from Star Wars, Luke Skywalker gazing into the distance while walking on Tatooine, a planet with two suns. And more than three decades after the movies came out the real life version has been discovered -- a freezing cold planet named Kepler-16b, which is about the size of Saturn and 200 light years away. American researchers using observations from NASA's Kepler spacecraft detected the distant planet, which is treated to a double sunset every evening.


Extraordinary: An artist's illustration of Kepler-16b, the first planet
known to orbit two stars. Pic/AFP


"This discovery is stunning," Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Terrestrial Magnetism said. "Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality." Binary stars -- two suns turning around each other -- have been seen before, and astronomers have suspected planets exist around them, but Kepler's observations are the first to confirm it.

The gravitational pull of two stars, even stars like the relatively small ones at the heart of this stellar system, would be quite different from the gravity exerted by just one star, Boss said. What made this find so eye-popping was that the stars were eclipsing each other as first one and then the other got in the way. And then a third eclipse indicated a planet was part of the system.

Star Wars film on the fictional planet Tatooine, home of Luke Skywalker. Tatooine was a rocky, desert planet, but Kepler-16b is a cool gas giant, Boss and other researchers said. The newly detected planet is 200 light-years from Earth and is not thought to harbour life. A light-year is about 10 trillion km. "Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet -- a planet orbiting not one, but two stars," said co-author Josh Carter. "Once again, we're finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems nature can create."

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