Star Wars planets like Tatooine may be common, study finds

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The Universe Could Be Full of Tatooine Sunsets

It appears that George Lucas might have got it right when he envisioned a planet with two suns.

Every "Star Wars" fan knows the scene from the first film. Luke Skywalker walks across his uncle's farm while watching dual suns set on the planet of Tatooine.

Nearly four decades later, astronomers still haven't found a planet quite like Tatooine. Researchers used to think it would be unlikely, believing the type of binary star system necessary to create such a sunset would likely only have giant gas planets that couldn't sustain life as we know it, but a new study says it's only a matter of time.

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Star Wars planets like Tatooine may be common, study finds
U.S. stamp depicting Star Wars character, Luke Skywalker
This image provided by NASA shows an artist's depiction showing a discovery by NASA's Kepler mission of a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. The planet, called Kepler-16b, is the most "Tatooine-like" planet yet found in our galaxy and is depicted here with its two stars. Tatooine is the name of Luke Skywalker's home world in the science fiction movie Star Wars. In this case, the planet it not thought to be habitable. It is a cold world, with a gaseous surface, but like Tatooine, it circles two stars. The largest of the two stars, a K dwarf, is about 69 percent the mass of our sun, and the smallest, a red dwarf, is about 20 percent the sun's mass. (AP photo/NASA)
In this image provided by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, a scene from "Star Wars" movie released by 20th Century-Fox in 1977, shows See-Threepio and Artoo Detoo trudge across the Tatooine desert in search of Ben Kenobi. (AP Photo/20th Century-Fox Film Corporation)
In this 1977 image provided by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, Imperial stormtroopers look for the lost droids in a scene from "Star Wars." The intergalactic adventure launched in theaters 35 years ago on May 25, 1977, introducing the world to The Force, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Han Solo and a pair of loveable droids named R2-D2 and C-3PO. (AP Photo/20th Century-Fox Film Corporation)
STAR WARS : EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE 1977 TCF film with from left: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Fiord
Remains of George Lucas Star Wars movie set on Sahara desert in Tunisia
TUNISIA: Tataouine. The Ksar Ouled Soltane, near Tataouine in SE Tunisia. They are Berber granaries,originating in medieval times,of adobe,now abandoned. They featured in the film "Star Wars"
TATAOUINE, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 28: Tunisian security forces take security measures as Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid visits border region in Remada town of Tataouine, Tunisia on February 28, 2015. (Photo by Tasnim Nasri /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TUNISIA: Tataouine. The Ksar Ouled Soltane, near Tataouine in SE Tunisia. They are Berber granaries,originating in medieval times,of adobe,now abandoned. They featured in the film "Star Wars"
TATAOUINE, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 28: Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid (R) talks to Tunisian security forces at the border region during his visit in Remada town of Tataouine, Tunisia on February 28, 2015. (Photo by Tasnim Nasri /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TUNISIA: Tataouine.SE Tunisia. The Berber granaries,of Tataouine,called ghorfas, originating in medieval times,of adobe,now abandoned. They featured in the film "Star Wars"
Bedouin Arab tribesman in the desert at Star Wars film location Tataouine Tunisia
TATAOUINE, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 28: Tunisian security forces take security measures as Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid visits border region in Remada town of Tataouine, Tunisia on February 28, 2015. (Photo by Tasnim Nasri /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TATAOUINE, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 28: Tunisian security forces take security measures as Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid visits border region in Remada town of Tataouine, Tunisia on February 28, 2015. (Photo by Tasnim Nasri /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TATAOUINE, TUNISIA - FEBRUARY 28: Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid (R) talks to Tunisian security forces at the border region during his visit in Remada town of Tataouine, Tunisia on February 28, 2015. (Photo by Tasnim Nasri /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TUNISIA - MAY 27: Chenini, village built on a rocky outcrop, with the mosque on the right, Tataouine, Tunisia. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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The still unpublished story from a pair of researchers from the University of Utah focuses on planet formation, the process where dust and gas surrounding a newly formed star clump together into a planet. For years, it's been an open question whether that process could work the same way in binary star systems.

In 2006, astronomer Alan Boss at the Carnegie Institute showed that the process could work for large gaseous planets like Neptune or Jupiter, and five years later, NASA announced just such a planet had been found.

Since then, around a dozen other planets have been discovered orbiting binary stars, but all of them are gas giants.

So what about small, rocky planets like Earth or Tatooine? According to the astrophysicists who've released an early version of the paper, they're out there too, even if we haven't found them yet.

In a new paper that hasn't yet been peer reviewed, the study's authors say they ran simulation after simulation, and eventually found that "planet formation can proceed in much the same way as around a single star."

In fact, because around half of all star systems have two stars, they say, "Tatooine sunsets may be common after all," including in the habitable zone, the distance from the star where life can flourish.

Part of the reason we might not have found them yet is that small rocky planets are just tougher to find. Luckily, NASA has a new space telescope dedicated to the planet search set for launch in 2017.

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