The most surreal sunset in the universe

David Shiga

One of the most memorable scenes in the Star Wars series features Luke Skywalker on a dusty hill, watching a pair of suns set in tandem. Skywalker is standing on the fictional planet of Tatooine, but it turns out that similarly surreal sunsets are visible in reality – from the newly discovered exoplanet Kepler 16b, which orbits two stars.

A word of caution for any Earthlings hoping to glimpse a double sunset though: you’d need to travel 200 light years first, and once you got there, you wouldn’t be able to stand on the planet itself – it is gaseous.

At the heart of the newly discovered binary solar system, an orange star and a smaller red one orbit each other every 41 days, separated by about half the distance between Mercury and the sun. The orange dwarf and its red-dwarf partner have 69 and 20 per cent of the sun’s mass, respectively.

The clues that the planet is there were picked up by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. It detected tiny dips in brightness due to the planet occasionally passing in front of each star and blocking some of its light, reports a team led by Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. The planet traces out an orbit that is close to circular with the twin suns approximately at its centre.

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Object type: Exoplanet
Distance from Earth: 200 light years

Not as good as Kepler 16b <i>(Image: Absolute Films)</i>

Not as good as Kepler 16b (Image: Absolute Films)

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