Star Wars planets like Tatooine may be common, study finds

The Universe Could Be Full of Tatooine Sunsets
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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The still unpublished story from a pair of researchers from the University of Utah focuses on planet formation, the process where dust and gas surrounding a newly formed star clump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.