Scientists have discovered a new planet that orbits two suns. And it’s similarity to the fictional Tatooine of Star Wars fame is fascinating.
By Nicole Buckler
A new planet has been found which has two suns – and it is theoretically capable of throwing up a double sunset, just like Tatooine. It has been named Kepler-1647 b (and not Tatooine, which is vastly disappointing and needs to be rectified at once, obviously.) Kepler-1647 b is known as a circumbinary planet – because it circles two suns.
For those of you who need a refresher about Tatooine (you should be ashamed of yourselves if you have forgotten any of this, this is vital stuff) here it is. Tatooine is a fictional desert planet featured in many key scenes throughout the Star Wars saga. It is the home of both Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and it is the most iconic planet in the Star Wars universe. In fact, the achingly beautiful shots of Luke Skywalker gazing at a Tatooinian sunset are the most hauntingly stunning images of the entire saga.
Luke and his binary sunset.
The name Tatooine is derived from a Southern village in Tunisia, called Tataouine (which is the French spelling). It is near to where George Lucas filmed various movie scenes. The planet wasn’t actually named in Star Wars; according to Lucas he named it retrospectively after coming across the actual Tataouine in the Tunisian desert.
Tatooine’s twin suns (Tatoo I and Tatoo II) heat its surface, making water and shade hard to come by. The planet’s lack of resources, brutal heat, and decentralised population make governing the planet nearly impossible. And yet, the planet’s indigenous lifeforms are well-adapted to its arid climate. For humans, life isn’t so easy. Human settlers have to become moisture farmers and live in subterranean dwellings in order to survive. These farmers harvest water vapour from the atmosphere, and use it to grow crops in underground hydroponic labs. Luke Skywalker spent his first twenty years living with his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru on such a moisture farm.
The city of Mos Eisley is a spaceport town on Tatooine. Obi-Wan Kenobi describes Mos Eisley as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
So now that your refresher of Tatooine is over, we can now all delight in the fact that Lucas created this world decades ago, before planets with two suns were even heard of. But now, we know for sure that these worlds with double sunsets exist in real life.
If you are standing on earth, you can cast your eyes toward the constellation Cygnus. You’ll be looking in the direction of the largest planet yet discovered around a double-star system. It’s too faint to see with the naked eye. But a team led by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and San Diego State University used the Kepler Space Telescope to identify this new planet. And now they have told all of us about it… making us want to go there and live in towns famous for being wretched hives of scum and villainy.
While scientists are supposed to call planets that orbit two stars “circumbinary planets” sometimes they’s cool and also call them “Tatooine planets.”
“Finding circumbinary planets is much harder than finding planets around single stars,” said astronomer William Welsh, one of the paper’s co-authors. “The transits are not regularly spaced in time and they can vary in duration and even depth.”
Once a candidate planet is found, researchers employ advanced computer programs to determine if it really is a planet. It can be a gruelling process. Laurance Doyle, a co-author on the paper and astronomer at the SETI Institute, noticed a transit back in 2011. But more data and several years of analysis were needed to confirm the transit was indeed caused by a circumbinary planet. A network of amateur astronomers provided additional observations that helped the researchers estimate the planet’s mass.
So here’s what we know now. Kepler-1647 b is 3,700 light-years away and approximately 4.4 billion years old, roughly the same age as the Earth. Its stars are similar to the Sun, with one slightly larger than our home star and the other slightly smaller. The planet has a mass and radius nearly identical to that of Jupiter, making it the largest transiting circumbinary planet ever found.
The planet takes 1,107 days (just over 3 years) to orbit its host stars, the longest period of any confirmed transiting exoplanet found so far. The planet is also much further away from its stars than any other circumbinary planet, breaking with the tendency for circumbinary planets to have close-in orbits.
Interestingly, its orbit puts the planet within the so-called habitable zone. Like Jupiter, however, Kepler-1647 b is a gas giant, making the planet unlikely to host life. Yet if the planet has large moons, they could potentially be suitable for life.
This is all exciting news, and we need some of that lately. But let’s not forget that the Dark Side is still with us: Islamic extremists scored a public-relations coup in 2015 after seizing the actual Tataouine city, here on earth. Perhaps, like the Death Star, they need Luke Skywalker to shoot torpedoes into their exhaust vent. I’ll volunteer to help if it means I get to spend time watching a double sunset from a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Are you going for a trip to the Mos Eisley Spaceport? Well here’s what you or your lady needs to look the part. This maxi dress combines the length of a gown with the ease of a t-shirt. You can wear it with a pair of sandals for desert trekking amongst the moisture farms, or for a night out in the Mos Eisley Cantina, at the heart of the pirate city. Dance and drink the night away with dangerous characters of various alien races, and look good while doing so. It is also comfortable for when you need to escape Imperial stormtroopers looking for R2-D2 and C-3PO. You heard it first here at the Almanac!