What George Lucas imagined in the 1977 film Star Wars wasn’t too far-fetched after all. More than three decades later, NASA has announced the discovery of Kepler-16b, a planet that orbits two stars, just like Tatooine did in Star Wars. The finding is significant because even though double-star systems are quite common in the Milky Way, “it wasn’t clear ... that planets could form and survive in their vicinity,” explains Time’s Michael Lemonick. Now all that doubt has been put to rest by the space agency’s Kepler mission, which searches for planets where there might be water and even life, notes the Los Angeles Times.
The Saturn-sized planet is around 200 light-years from Earth and circles two stars about every 229 days, according to the report published in Science. The stars themselves orbit each other every 41 days, “causing brightness dips.” Unlike Tatooine though, there’s little doubt that Kepler-16b is uninhabitable with average temperatures of around minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit. “The planet's very existence suggests that the number of places to look for other worlds is much vaster than anyone had counted on,” writes Lemonick.
Kepler-16b might hog all the headlines but its discovery capped a week of new findings, where four research teams reported on “74 previously unknown exoplanets, as worlds orbiting other stars are called, including 16 that appear to be only slightly larger than Earth and with gravity favorable to life as we know it,” reports the Wall Street Journal. So far, none of the 683 exoplanets that have been found seem capable of holding life, but their sheer number make it clear there could be more planets out there than previously imagined. “The universe is teeming with planetary systems of multiple planets, many of which are nearly the size of Earth,” said Geoffrey Marcy at the University of California in Berkeley.