Texas astronomers have helped discover the first multi-planet solar system orbiting around a binary star—the kind of place Luke Skywalker could call home.
The University of Texas McDonald Observatory, an internationally known leader in astronomy outreach and education, has helped make the latest tantalizing discovery from deep space.
In conjunction with NASA’s Kepler mission, UT astronomers have found a planetary system that is the first of its kind. The system, dubbed Kepler-47, proves that whole planetary systems can form within twin suns, also called binary stars.
Unlike our sun, most stars come in pairs that orbit each other. After this discovery was made, NASA began the Kepler mission to find more binary stars. The Kepler mission, thus far, has discovered more than 2,300 potentially inhabitable planets. Kepler 47 is the first system ever discovered with multiple planets circling more than one star.
“It’s Tatooine, right?” McDonald Observatory astronomer Michael Endel says, referring to the fictional home of character Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars series. Though he goes on to say that the lighting on the Kepler 47 planets would be very different than portrayed in the movies, the space-geek excitement remains.
Scientists are now investigating planets within the “habitable zone” in this system, where life could be sustained and liquids could exist. The first planet, disappointingly, is more than four times the size of Earth and therefore is, like Uranus, an icy giant. But other planets in the system are yet to be investigated.
After the Kepler mission detected the system, UT astronomers were asked to help identify the size of the planets using the McDonald Observatory’s two internationally famous telescopes. “This is the type of research where McDonald Observatory really excels,” UT senior research scientist Steve Cochran says. Other members of the Kepler team at McDonald Observatory include research scientist Phillip MacQueen, graduate students Paul Robertson and Eric Brugamyer, and recent graduate Caroline Caldwell.
Photos (top to bottom): An artist’s concept illustration of Kepler-47. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle. Kepler 47 labeled diagram. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.