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The planet Kepler-16b orbits two stars, giving it two sunrises and two sunsets. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / T. Pyle)

A Planet With Two Suns

Astronomers discover a solar system that’s straight out of science fiction

By Sara Goudarzi | September 29 , 2011
<p>Kepler-16b is roughly the size of Saturn while its two suns are smaller than our own sun. <br />(NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Hurt)<br /></p>

Kepler-16b is roughly the size of Saturn while its two suns are smaller than our own sun.
(NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Hurt)

Astronomers have discovered a planet with two suns, much like Luke Skywalker’s fictional home in Star Wars.

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Kepler space telescope has uncovered a distant planet, dubbed Kepler-16b, circling two stars like our sun. This means that the planet has two sunrises and two sunsets.

But unlike Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine, the cold and inhospitable Kepler-16b doesn’t support life.

THE DISCOVERY

In March 2009, NASA launched Kepler into outer space to search for Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The spacecraft has been orbiting, or circling, the sun. As it orbits, it measures the brightness of about 155,000 stars and monitors any planets that pass in front of them.

Astronomers learned of the two stars, called a binary star system, when the stars eclipsed, or blocked, each other from Kepler’s perspective. An eclipse occurs when a large body moves in front of another and blocks the light that ordinarily reaches the observer.

Scientists also noticed that at times both stars appeared dim—even when one was not in front of the other. This meant that a third object was circling both stars.

More measurements showed that the third object is a planet. Scientists believe that Kepler-16b is as massive as Saturn, and that the stars it orbits are smaller than our sun.

“This discovery is stunning,” says Alan Boss, a researcher involved with the finding. “Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality.”

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