We have sighted an exoplanet similar to Tatooine

Observers have identified Kepler-16b, an exoplanet orbiting two stars, similar to a world portrayed in the original “Star Wars” series, using a relatively modest 193-centimeter telescope. The telescope is located at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence, about 100 kilometers north of Marseille, France. The research team led by the University of Birmingham said the survey demonstrates the value that using a ground-based telescope can have “at greater efficiency and lower cost than using spacecraft.”

The planet was originally found using the transit method, during which the planet passed one of its stars in front of NASA’s now retired Kepler Space Telescope. The France-based telescope confirmed the planet through the radial velocity method, which it examines the effects gravitational effects that a planet induces on its parent star.

The team says the discovery heralds a new set of work they intend to do regarding so-called ‘circumbinar planets’ – planets that orbit two stars.

Artistic illustration of the potential new exoplanet and its host star. Credits: M. Kornmesser / ESO

Scientists hope their telescope will find previously unknown planets of this type, helping astronomers learn how planetary formation occurs in a two-star solar system. Planets have so far been thought to form in a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust surrounding a young star, but it is unclear whether circumbinar systems could support this environment.

“Using this standard explanation, it is difficult to understand how circumbinary planets can exist,” said lead author Amaury Triaud, an exoplanet researcher from Birmingham. “This is because the presence of two stars interferes with the protoplanetary disk, and this prevents dust from agglomerating in the planets, a process called accretion.”

Triaud suggested that the planet may instead have formed away from the two stars and then migrated inward. But further studies could reveal alternative scenarios that form planets around binary systems, which in turn can shape scientists’ theories of how planets form more generally.