New, Star Wars-like Exoplanet Has Two Suns Instead of One

First Posted: Aug 11, 2015 08:12 AM EDT

Scientists have discovered an unusual new exoplanet that orbits two stars instead of one. The new finding is only the 10th "circumbinary" planet that's been discovered by NASA's Kepler Mission.

The planet is now called Kepler-453b, and is located within its host stars' "habitable zone," which is the area around the stars in which life could potentially exist. Because of the somewhat fortuitous nature of its discovery, researchers believe there could be more like it out there.

"If we had observed this planet earlier or later than we did, we would have seen nothing and assumed there was no planet there," said Stephen Kane, one of the researchers, in a news release. "That suggests that there are a lot more of these kinds of planets than we are thinking, and we're just looking at the wrong time."

Researchers usually detect exoplanets by observing the decrease in starlight as the planet passes between its host star and Earth. But because Kepler-453b is impacted by the gravitational pull of two stars, its orbit is more erratic. Because of this, its transits are only visible to astronomers about 9 percent of the time. In this case, the scientists estimate that the next observable transit for this exoplanet will be in 2066.

The newly discovered exoplanet is 6.2 times that of Earth, or about 60 percent larger than Neptune. This size hints that the exoplanet is a gas giant rather than a rocky planet, and is unable to have life even though it's located in the habitable zone.

With that said, this exoplanet could possess moons that are rocky. These moons, in theory, might be able to support life.

Any inhabitant of this system would see two suns in their sky, rather like the view from the planet Tatooine in the move, Star Wars. The largest sun is about 94 percent the size of our sun, and the smallest is only 20 percent the size of our sun.

"Being involved in these discoveries never gets old," said Kane. "We live in an amazing time in which we have the technology to measure objects hundreds of light-years away and answer some of the questions about the universe that humans have asked for ages. It's incredible to be part of that."

The findings are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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