Unlike Star Wars’ Tatooine, the planet 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.
Image: In the Light of Two Suns - 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.
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. When the smaller star partially blocks the larger star, a primary eclipse occurs, and a secondary eclipse occurs when the smaller star is occulted, or completely blocked, by the larger star.
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.
"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."
This discovery confirms that Kepler-16b is an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas. The parent stars are smaller than our sun. One is 69 percent the mass of the sun and the other only 20 percent. Kepler-16b orbits around both stars every 229 days, similar to Venus’ 225-day orbit, but lies outside the system’s habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface, because the stars are cooler than our sun.