16 Sep 2011

‘Star Wars’ planet discovered by astronomers

Scientists say they have discovered the first planet which, like Tatooine in the Star Wars films, orbits two suns. One leading astronomer tells Channel 4 News it is a “science fiction dream come true”

A Nasa mission to find habitable planets has discovered what astronomers say is the first planet known to orbit two suns. It is the latest discovery from the agency’s Kepler mission which is tasked with finding other habitable planets.

Like Luke Skywalker’s fictional home world in Star Wars, the body orbits a binary pair of stars which are about 1.5 and 4.5 times smaller than our own sun.

Dr Marek Kukula, the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told Channel 4 News that scientists have been formulating the data to reveal startling facts about the new planet.

“From tiny amounts of data they’ve worked out the size of the planet, its orbit, the length of the year, so we’ve found out quite a bit about it,” Dr Kukula said.

Scientists say they orbit each other every 41 days, causing brightness dips that have been detected by the Kepler space telescope.The findings are being published in the journal Science.

Both stars and planet orbit in the same plane, suggesting they formed together from a single spinning disk of gas and dust.

Until now, astronomers have not been sure if planets could form around binary stars.

The Kepler mission aims to survey part of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to try to discover Earth-size planets in or near the so-called habitable zone and determine how many of the galaxy’s estimated billions of stars have such planets.

Photo gallery: secrets of the universe revealed by Kepler – click on the image below.