This artist’s concept illustrates Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars — what’s called a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission.
The two orbiting stars regularly eclipse each other, as seen from our point of view on Earth. The planet also eclipses, or transits, each star, and Kepler data from these planetary transits allowed the size, density and mass of the planet to be extremely well determined. The fact that the orbits of the stars and the planet align within a degree of each other indicate that the planet formed within the same circumbinary disk that the stars formed within, rather than being captured later by the two stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
Unlike Star Wars’ Tatooine, Kepler-16b is cold, gaseous and not thought to harbor life, but its discovery demonstrates the diversity of planets in our galaxy. Previous research has hinted at the existence of circumbinary planets, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Kepler detected such a planet, known as Kepler-16b, by observing transits, where the brightness of a parent star dims from the planet crossing in front of it.
“This discovery confirms a new class of planetary systems that could harbor life,” Kepler principal investigator William Borucki said. “Given that most stars in our galaxy are part of a binary system, this means the opportunities for life are much broader than if planets form only around single stars. This milestone discovery confirms a theory that scientists have had for decades but could not prove until now.”
A research team led by Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., used data from the Kepler space telescope, which measures dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, to search for transiting planets. Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of the orbiting planet.
Scientists detected the new planet in the Kepler-16 system, a pair of orbiting stars that eclipse each other from our vantage point on Earth.
Astronomers further observed that the brightness of the system dipped even when the stars were not eclipsing one another, hinting at a third body. The additional dimming in brightness events, called the tertiary and quaternary eclipses, reappeared at irregular intervals of time, indicating the stars were in different positions in their orbit each time the third body passed. This showed the third body was circling, not just one, but both stars, in a wide circumbinary orbit.
The gravitational tug on the stars, measured by changes in their eclipse times, was a good indicator of the mass of the third body. Only a very slight gravitational pull was detected, one that only could be caused by a small mass. The findings are described in a new study published Friday, Sept. 16, in the journal Science.
“Most of what we know about the sizes of stars comes from such eclipsing binary systems, and most of what we know about the size of planets comes from transits,” said Doyle, who also is the lead author and a Kepler participating scientist. “Kepler-16 combines the best of both worlds, with stellar eclipses and planetary transits in one system.”