In one of the most iconic scenes in the sci-fi epic, Star Wars, Luke Skywalker stares up into a fading sky framed by two setting suns over the dusty plains of the planet Tatooine. Yesterday, NASA announced that their exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope had discovered the first unambiguous example of a Tatooine-like planet, now called Kepler-16b.
What NASA’s calling a “circumbinary planet,” I’d just assume call “bitchin’”. This wondrous little world is orbiting some 200 light years from your local falafel stand, is made of a volatile mix of gas and rock and at minus 100 to 150 F is, in the words of astronomer Laurance Doyle who led the team that first observed it, “kind of like a nippy day on Mars.” The larger of the two suns is roughly 69% the mass of our Sun, while the smaller, red star is closer to 20% of our Sun’s mass.
Because there is no actual “surface” on Kepler-16b, Luke, or any carbon-based life form foolish enough to book a ticket, might have a hard time appreciating the sunset. Ah, but Kepler-16b could, according the NASA team, have a moon. And you can just imagine what that view must look like. You’d see a large orange star twice the apparent size of our Sun and a smaller, fainter red star companion orbiting around each other at 41-day intervals. At that rate, you’d often have two sunsets and two sunrises per day. Great, if you’re a sci-fi geek. Not so great if you’re an Orthodox Jew. And don’t even get me started on what that might entail for a two-day yuntiv.
So what’s it all mean? Only that the universe continues to amaze, as it should, and that for a brief moment in time, there was no upcoming election, no UN resolutions, no bills to pay. There was only a lonely, distant world quietly ambling its way between two suns, capturing our imagination and fueling our dreams.