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Tatooine-like planet: Astronomers spot pair of planets orbiting twin suns (+video)

Tatooine-like planet: In a cosmic first, astronomers have discovered two alien planets orbiting two stars, not unlike Luke Skywalker's home planet in the Star Wars films.

By Charles Q. ChoiSPACE.com / August 29, 2012

An artist's illustration of the alien solar system Kepler-47, a twin star system that is home to two planets. The planets have two suns like the fictional planet Tatooine in the "Star Wars" universe.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

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Astronomers have for the first time discovered two alien planets whirling around a pair of stars: a complete solar system with twin suns just like Luke Skywalker's fictional home world Tatooine.

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This artist's movie illustrates Kepler-47, the first transiting circumbinary system -- a system with more than one planet orbiting a pair of stars -- 4,900 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Cygnus.. The system was detected by NASA's Kepler space telescope, which measures minisucule changes in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets that pass in front of or 'transit' their host star. The movie begins by showing a birds-eye view of the system as it zooms in on the host stars.

Most stars like our sun are not singletons, but rather come in pairs that orbit each other. Scientists had found planets in these binary systems, so-called circumbinary planets with two suns like Tatooine in the "Star Wars" universe.

To find more circumbinary planets, astronomers analyzed data from NASA's prolific Kepler space telescope, which has detected more than 2,300 potential alien worlds since its March 2009 launch. Kepler had to date detected four systems with circumbinary planets — Kepler-16, 34, 35 and 38.

The scientists have now announced the detection of Kepler-47, the first system seen with multiple worlds encircling a pair of stars. The star and its planets, called Kepler-47b and Kepler-47c, dwell about 5,000 light-years away, in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. [Planets of the Tatooine-like Solar System (Gallery)]

"Kepler-47 shows us that binary stars can have close-in planetary systems, just like the ones we see in single stars," study lead author Jerome Orosz at San Diego State University told SPACE.com. "Most of the stars in the galaxy are in binary or higher-order multiple systems, so the fact that planetary systems can exist in these types of systems is important. If we were restricted to looking for planets around single stars, we would be missing most of the stars in the galaxy."

Spotting "Tatooine" solar system

The planets are much too far away to see with the naked eye. Rather, they were discovered by the drop in brightness they cause when they cross in front of, or transit, their host stars.

This dimming is tiny, only 0.08 percent for planet Kepler-47b and 0.2 percent for planet Kepler-47c. By comparison, Venus blocked about 0.1 percent of the sun's surface during its recent transit. Data from Kepler enabled researchers to deduce the relative sizes of the objects and orbits. They also relied on follow-up observations performed by telescopes at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas.

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