Life on Tatooine?

Life on Tatooine?

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People are now able to find planets — and they do not even have to be astronomers. They just have to have an interest in astronomy and know what to look for. A citizen science astronomy site allows people to scan data gleaned from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Two people — one person from San Francisco and the other from Cottonwood, Arizona — noticed a periodic change in the light in a certain area outside of the solar system.

The exoplanet — or extrasolar planet, a planet outside the solar system — that the two citizen scientists found orbits within a quadruple star system. A quadruple star system is a set of two stars that orbits yet another set of two stars. Each set of stars has one star that orbits the other star. According to Wired Science, barely a year ago, astronomers were not sure if a planet could even exist in a binary star system, much less a quadruple star system.

Previously, scientists learned that circumbinary exoplanets much like the Tatooine of Star Wars do exist. Once the first one was discovered, at least five others have been found. Circumbinary planets, like Tatooine, have two suns, so they have two sunsets and two sunrises. A person on those planets may even see two bright stars wandering amongst the rest of the stars visible from that planet.

According to Wired Science, approximately one-half of all the stars in the universe are binary — meaning one star orbits another. If planets can exist in these star solar systems, there is a much bigger chance of finding life outside of Earth.

The exoplanet found by the citizen scientists is located in the star system KIC 4862625. The star system is about 3,200 light years away from Earth. The two scientists noticed that the light changed — dimmed — around this star system periodically. They learned that the planet, now known as PH1, was passing in front of the star system, thus eclipsing the light from the stars. PH1 orbits every 138 days.

Wired Science states that PH1 is a gas planet that has a radius that is 6.2 times the radius of Earth. This means that PH1 is a little bigger than Neptune. Scientists estimate its mass at about half of Jupiter’s mass. The binary stars around the planet have more mass than the sun — 1.5 time and 0.41 times — and one star orbits the other every 20 days. These are called the planet’s binary pair parents. The other set of stars — the two stars that orbit the pair parent stars, are further away from the parent stars than 1,000 times the distance between the Earth and our Sun.

Astronomers at Yale confirmed the citizen scientists’ findings and the work is being presented on October 15, 2012 at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting, being held in Reno, Nevada. The discovery has also been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

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