Astronomers find rare planet circling two stars like Star Wars’s Tatooine

Iconic shot of Luke Skywalker staring at Tatooine’s horizon that has two suns shows what a circumbinary system would look like

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 14 June 2023 09:35 BST
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A planet similar to Tatooine, the fictional home of Star Wars protagonist Luke Skywalker, has been found by astronomers.

This is only the second time a multiplanetary system with two stars at the centre has been found, said findings about the new discovery, published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Planets that orbit around both stars at once are part of what are called circumbinary systems, in contrast to systems like the Solar System where there is a single star at the centre.

The iconic shot of Skywalker from the first Star Wars movie, staring into an uncertain future at Tatooine’s horizon, serves as a cinematic illustration of what a circumbinary system would look like if life were to be present on such planets.

The Tatooine-like planet was named Bebop-1c, after the name of the project that collected the data for the new discovery. Bebop stands for Binaries Escorted By Orbiting Planets.

Only 12 circumbinary systems are known to astronomers. The latest discovery is just the second system found that hosts more than one planet.

The previous such planetary system with two stars and more than one planet is Kepler-47, which was discovered in 2012.

Prior to Kepler-47’s discovery, most astronomers thought binary stars with multiple planets could not exist and thought gravity changes in the parent stars may cause the planets to collide with each other or be ejected out of orbit.

In the latest Bebop circumbinary system, scientists could so far identify two planets, but said more might be found in future studies.

Artist’s concept illustrates Kepler-47, the first transiting circumbinary system that was discovered
Artist’s concept illustrates Kepler-47, the first transiting circumbinary system that was discovered (NASA)

Researchers have found that Bebop-1c has an orbital period of 215 days around its suns and a mass 65 times larger than Earth or about five times less than Jupiter’s.

Circumbinary systems, according to researchers, including those from the University of Birmingham in the UK, are important for pushing the understanding of what happens when a planet is created.

“Planets are born in a disc of matter surrounding a young star, where mass progressively gathers into planets,” study co-author Lalitha Sairam said in a statement.

Compared to single stars like our Sun, she said it is easier to pinpoint the location and conditions of planet formation in circumbinary systems.

“In the case of circumbinary geometries, the disc surrounds both stars. As both stars orbit one another, they act like a giant paddle that disturbs the disc close to them and prevents planet formation except for in regions that are quiet and far away from the binary,” Dr Sairam explained.

While researchers do not know the exact size of Bebop-1c, they could determine its mass and could place a strict upper limit on another the inner planet.

This inner planet, they said, has a density lower than a Victoria Sponge cake – a rarity that makes this planet optimal for further studies with the James Webb space telescope.

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