Previously only imaged in “Star Wars”, UCSB astrophysicist Avi Shroprer recently aided in the discovery of a small planet — Kepler-16 — orbiting two suns in our own Milky Way.
The research findings, published last month in Science, uncovered the first binary planetary system. The study was conducted in collaboration with the UCSB-affiliated Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, and the Kepler project associated with NASA.
The new planet, which has been compared to Saturn in terms of both radius and mass, orbits its two stars every 229 days with a stellar binary orbit of 41 days. Scientists with the Kepler team have estimated the stars’ masses at approximately 69 percent and 20 percent of the sun’s mass.
According to the report, the astonishing accuracy of these estimations marks a major success in exoplanetary and stellar astrophysical investigations, since measuring low-mass stars is exceedingly difficult.
Scientists first believed that they were viewing a binary system — meaning a system in which two stars orbit each other — but further examination of the images generated by the Kepler telescope revealed otherwise. Multiple eclipses were in fact occurring, indicating the existence of a circumbinary system in which one planet orbits two stars.
“This system is so fascinating since it is viewed edge-on, and all three bodies — the two stars and the planet — are all eclipsing each other,” Laurance Doyle, head author of the paper and member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), said in a recent press release.
Prior to this discovery, circumbinary systems such as this one existed primarily in scientists’ and science-fiction writer’s imaginations.
“As a science-fiction groupie, I believed it did exist, but as a scientist … we did not know if such systems could evolve,” Shroprer said.
The primary objective of the Kepler telescope, almost in its third year of operation, is to study the 155,000 stars in the Milky Way in the hopes of finding a habitable planet. Kepler-16 was found 220 light years away near the constellation Lyra and Cygnus.
“The goal is to detect planet similar to the Earth, orbiting a star similar to our Sun. This is why NASA pays 600 million dollars to put [Kepler] in space,” Shroprer said.
The discovery of planets like Kepler-16 demonstrates the incredible power of Earth-orbiting telescopes and adds depth to predominating theories of gravitation and stellar evolution.
According to Dr. Carl Gwinn, a UCSB physicists concerned with radio astronomy, studies such as this one do much to further our previously limited understanding of other planetary systems.
“As a grad student … exoplanet research was an arcane field,” Gwinn said.
However, Kepler’s success seems to be encouraging exoplanet research and promoting public appreciation of contributing sciences, especially physics.
“Lots of physics discoveries … don’t have that resonance with the public,” Gwinn said. “It’s inspiring”.