The ongoing voyage of NASA’s unmanned Kepler spacecraft involves the discovery of new worlds. According to recently compiled data from Kepler presented by Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., something entirely unexpected has been discovered in a dual star system. Much like Tatooine in “Star Wars,” astronomers have discovered the first circumbinary planet – a planet with twin suns.
‘First definitive case’ of a circumbinary planet
Carnegie Melon research Alan Boss told Fox News that this is the first known circumbinary planet on record.
“People in the past have thought they saw instances like this,” Boss said. “But there are other ways of explaining them. This is the first one where it’s absolutely, quantitatively sure that this is what the explanation is.”
Similar in mass and density to Saturn, the circumbinary planet is most likely a gas giant that is quite cold, with average temperatures 100 degrees centigrade colder than on Earth – similar to Antarctica during deep winter.
While it seems impossible for life to flourish on such a planet, Boss notes that the if it were possible, the sunsets would be something to behold.
“It would change from day to day because the stars orbit around themselves every 41 days,” he said. “So every time you look at them, they’re going to be in a different configuration in the sky. And when sunrises and sunsets occur, sometimes they’ll be quite widely spaced in time and sometimes they’ll go up and down almost simultaneously.”
‘A serendipitous discovery’
Researchers had not programmed Kepler to specifically search for circumbinary planets. The discovery was made during the process of the spacecraft’s general mission. More than 150,000 thousand stars in the Milky Way are examined, some of them “eclipsing binaries” that orbit a common center of mass. Lead author of the circumbinary planet research article Laurance Doyle found that the two stars in this case actually eclipsed each other.
“And in addition, you can find a third object which eclipses both of the stars periodically,” Boss told Fox. “First it dims one star, then it dims the other star. So you’re seeing four different types of dimming in the system, which is unprecedented. It was just a serendipitous discovery.”
Memories of a desert planet
Last year, a binary star system was discovered, and astronomers were excited to see what they thought was the first close binary system on record. However, further study made it clear that the phenomenon was actually a wide binary system, which is not unprecedented. Kepler’s latest discovery is clearly unique.
“Tatooine was about a system like this one, a close binary system where the two stars are right next to each other and the planets orbit around both of them,” said Boss.
Carnegie Melon’s research on the circumbinary planet will publish in the journal Science on Friday, Sept. 16.
Kepler’s binary star discovery
Binary star Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_star
Fox News: http://fxn.ws/nwc0IP
Kepler project home page: http://kepler.nasa.gov/
Popular Science: http://bit.ly/oea0FT
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