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Tatooine-like Planet Discovered!

September 20th, 2011

Artist concept credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

Tatooine-like Planet Discovered!

September 20, 2011 — Science fiction has become science fact! NASA scientists have discovered a planet with two suns, a lot like Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, from the Star Wars movies!

The planet, officially called Kepler 16b, but nicknamed Tatooine, orbits around two suns  — with a double sunrise and double sunset. It’s the first discovery of its kind and until now scientists hadn’t been sure anything like it could exist.

This is all taking place 200 light years away, outside of our solar system but inside our galaxy, the Milky Way. A smaller star orbits a bigger star and Kepler 16b orbits around both about every 229 days.

But there’s no desert here, no Jawas, and definitely no Tusken Raiders (phew). There’s actually probably no life at all.  For starters, it’s super cold. One scientist involved in the discovery said the weather was like “a nippy day in Antarctica at best.” It’s also got a largely gaseous atmosphere and a smaller rocky core — a lot like Saturn from that perspective (though Kepler 16b’s rocky core is still 40-60 times Earth’s mass!).

Mr. John Knoll, who worked as a visual effects supervisor on many of the Star Wars movies said, “Again and again we see that science is stranger and weirder than fiction. The very existence of this discovery gives us cause to dream bigger.”

Mrs. Hanson’s class and Mrs. Simon-Gross’s class … HTE loves your questions! And we’ve got answers for you!

Here There Everywhere would like to thank Jason Kendall, a Solar System Ambassador with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and Astronomy teacher at William Paterson University, for his great answers.

Mrs. Hanson’s class: Is there any oxygen there?

Mr. Kendall: Oxygen is very common in the universe, so it’s there, but not in the way you’re thinking about it.  If you mean is there free oxygen that we might be able to breathe, then I’m sorry to say, but on a planet like Kepler 16b, it’s too hot for that to exist.  Also, astronomers think that breathable oxygen is the result of some kind of bacterial life that breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen.  On earth, not only are there such bacteria, but also trees and plants do the same thing.  Everything that’s green in your forest takes every breath you breathe out and makes new oxygen for you to breathe.  That’s why a walk in the woods is so refreshing.  But on this planet, it’s too big and too hot for bacteria or plants to exist.

Mrs. Hanson’s class: Can anyone go there?

Mr. Kendall: Right now, no people can go there.  It’s just too far away.  But someday, someone smart enough and dedicated enough might just find a way to transport people such vast distances.  This planet is so far away, that even if you travelled 20 miles every second, it would take you over 2,000,000 years to get there!   That’s a bit too far to go.  Even if you had a way to surf a light ray, riding on its waves, it would still take you over 200 years to get there.  And those light waves go fast.  They go 186,000 miles every second!  So Kepler 16b is not a place that humans will probably ever visit.

Mrs. Hanson’s class: When you say that there’s “probably” no life, how can you be sure?

Mr. Kendall: We really think there’s no life on that planet, not because we have been there and looked around and come home, but because we know how big it is.  It’s in between the sizes of Neptune and Jupiter.  We know those planets in our Solar System don’t harbor life, because they’re mostly big balls of hydrogen gas.  There’s no mountains or trees or people on those planets, so we don’t think there will be any on Kepler 16b. In addition, this planet is as close to its stars as Venus is to the Sun.  So this planet is too big, too hot and really not just right.

Mrs. Simon-Gross’s class: How long did it take astronomers to discover this planet?

Mr. Kendall: Finding this planet was a big waiting game. A telescope out in space has been staring at the same location in the sky for the past three years, looking for how the light from the distant star changed. If you want to do this in a playground, try it! Two of your friends will take a flashlight and a golf ball and walk to the far end of the playground, far enough that you can’t make out their faces easily. One will point the flashlight at you, and the other will “orbit” the light with the golf ball. When the ball is in front of the flashlight, you’ll see it get dimmer. Now, astronomers had to wait 228 days between dimmings, because that’s how long it takes the planet to go around the stars. Then, just to be sure, they had to wait and make sure it happened at least 3 times. That took about 3 years, much too long for a game at recess.

Mrs. Simon-Gross’s class: If someone did land there, what would happen to them?

Mr. Kendall: If someone landed on the planet, they wouldn’t land! There is no solid surface to this big planet, so they would just fall through the planet’s air. Now this air, which we’ll call atmosphere just because that’s what scientists call another planet’s air, gets very thick as you fall through it. Deep down gets so thick, that it would be like being at the bottom of the Earth’s ocean. And even then there’s no ground to land on, just more and thicker atmosphere below. But if you’ve ever swum underwater, you know that water is heavy. Well, so is the atmosphere of this planet, and it can crush things. To see what would happen, fill up a tub or sink with a lot of water. Then take an empty paper cup, and put the open end facing down and push it underwater. The cup will push in on the sides well before it gets soaked, crushing the cup! Now, if our cup is the spaceship and inside is our astronaut, well, they better have another way to get back to the surface or else the air pressure will get so great that they’ll soon get to feel what it’s like when a thousand elephants stand on their chest.

Mrs. Simon-Gross’s class: What is the telescope called that was used to find this planet?

Mr. Kendall: The Telescope is called the Kepler Space Telescope. It was launched back in March of 2009 and has been watching the same place in the sky ever since. Now here is something neat. The Kepler Space Telescope is good enough that it is able to see the dimming of a car’s headlight by a passing mosquito from across a mall parking lot. In addition, the people at NASA who run the telescope put all the data online, and want you to help them! They want you to help hunt for planets right alongside the scientists. In fact, there have been many planet candidates found by regular people, kids, and people from all over the USA and the world! You can try it yourself for free here:

Now, I have to give you a little alert. Remember how it took some time to find this planet? Well, this website is real science using real data taken by a real telescope, so it doesn’t look like that cool youtube video. That video is wonderful imagination. In reality, we look at a graph full of dots and wiggles and imagine what makes those dots wiggle. It takes good eyes and patience to find a planet, but even simply trying it out and learning about it makes a GREAT Science Fair project. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to find the most important planet of all: a nice small one, just like the Earth, going around a nice, bright star, just like the Sun, far away across the Galaxy, waiting for us to come explore.

We hope this helps, keep them coming!

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30 Comments on “Tatooine-like Planet Discovered!”

  • Simmons Hanson says:

    You didn’t mention any podracers! We hoped to hear the Star Wars theme music when we watched the video.

    The article was very interesting. The video was interesting. It made us ask more questions! Is there any oxygen? Can anyone go there? When you say that there’s “probably” no life, how can you be sure?

    Thank you,
    Capital City Room 402

  • Erica Simon-Gross says:

    Mr. Kendall,

    We really enjoyed reading your answers to the questions that Ms. Hanson’s class posted.

    My class had a few more questions. How long did it take astronomers to discover this planet? If someone did land there, what would happen to them? What is the telescope called that was used to find this planet?

    Thank you.
    Capital City Room 401

  • kdaysha says:

    i need neptune?

  • aaron says:

    i need pluto

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