And, no, they didn’t name it Tatooine. It’s called Kepler-16b, but astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are still way stoked about it because it’s the first ever confirmed circumbinary planet, a planet orbiting two suns, that we’ve discovered. Two sunsets, two sunrises. Four different directions.
“Once again, we’re finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems Nature can create,” Josh Carter, an astrophysicist at the Center, says. His team’s work is published in today’s issue of Science.
Note that we haven’t actually seen this in the sense that we’ll get some really cool, weird postcards out of the deal. This is part of the Kepler planet-hunting mission, in which planets are detected by a method known as “planetary transit.” Basically, you stare at a star for a really long time and note when it dims as something passes in front of it, like a planet.
This being a two star system, both stars dim naturally just because they eclipse each other at certain points. The researchers noticed however that they were dimming even when they weren’t eclipsing each other. The conclusion then was that, hey, there’s another planetary body mixed up here. The dimming happened at weird intervals, putting the two stars at different positions in their orbits at each dimming. Hence, the planet, the third body, is orbiting both.
At the very least, the new finding points toward our own solar system being pretty plain vanilla as these things go, and maybe there’s some solar systems out there that get pretty weird. It’s no aliens, of course, but at least we could squeeze in a Star Wars reference.
By Michael Byrne