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The Largest ‘Tatooine’ Planet With 2 Suns Has Just Been Discovered

Some worlds have more than one sun in their sky. Scientists have now confirmed the discovery of a gas giant with the same mass and radius as Jupiter, orbiting a pair of binary stars, making it the largest to be found to date.

Using the Kepler Space Telescope, a team of astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and San Diego State University (SDSU) were able to identify the new planet, Kepler-1647 b. Planets that orbit two stars are called circumbinary planets; however, some call them “Tatooine” planets, after Luke Skywalker’s homeland in Star Wars.

To discover planets, astronomers look for slight dips in brightness, which indicate there may be a planet transiting in front of a star, blocking some of the star’s light. NASA’s Kepler telescope has been instrumental in this process.

William Welsh, an astronomer from San Diego State University and one of the paper’s co-authors, said in a statement:

After astronomers find a candidate, advanced computer programs are then used to determine if it really is a planet. Laurance Doyle, an astronomer from the SETI Institute and also a co-author on the paper, was the first to notice a transit in 2011. However, to confirm the transit was caused by a circumbinary planet, astronomers needed more data and several years of analysis before they could make the conformation.

Graphic showing Kepler-1647b's size compared to that of all other two-star planets discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope to date. (Image: Lynette Cook)

Graphic showing Kepler-1647b’s size compared to that of all other 2-star planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope to date. (Image: Lynette Cook)

A network of amateur astronomers in the KELT Follow-Up Network also provided additional observations, which helped researchers to estimate the planet’s mass. Kepler-1647 b is approximately 4.4 billion years old, which is roughly the same age as the Earth, and sits 3,700 light-years away. The planet stars are similar to our sun, although one is slightly larger, and the other is slightly smaller.

SDSU astronomer Jerome Orosz, another co-author on the study, said:

The giant takes 1,107 days (a little over 3 years) to orbit its host stars, making it the longest period of all confirmed exoplanets. Kepler-1647 b is also much further away from its stars than any other circumbinary planet (circumbinary planets have a tendency to have close-in orbits).

This puts the exoplanet within the so-called habitable zone; however, because Kepler-1647 b is a gas giant, it is unlikely to host any life. “Yet if the planet has large moons, they could potentially be suitable for life,” SDSU wrote.

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