'From science fiction to science fact' | December 6, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |


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News - December 6, 2013

'From science fiction to science fact'

SETI scientist finds proof of unlikely planets orbiting two suns

by Ashley Finden

Discovering that something from science fiction is real is no ordinary feat. Laurance Doyle, an astrophysicist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, put in years of dedicated research, overcoming obstacles and disbelief from onlookers, and now he can say that something only seen on movie screens really exists.

As the lead scientist of a portion of the Kepler Mission to search for habitable planets, Doyle's goal was to look at a planet that orbits around two suns.

Star Wars fans will immediately think of fictional Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and the movie's iconic image of sunset, as two fiery suns sink beneath the horizon.

"We found the first transiting circumbinary planet, which means a planet that orbits around two stars," Doyle said in a recent interview.

Doyle had been looking for circumbinary planets for more than a decade and when Kepler launched in 2009, he applied to be a member of the science team hoping to find them.

"We found it within the first year, but we didn't publish for another year because we wanted to follow up the data," said Doyle.

At the end of the email Doyle sent to his team announcing the discovery of the first one, Kepler-16b, he joked, "Why don't we ask George Lucas if we can nickname it Tatooine?"

And they did, but only after making major efforts to contact Star Wars producer George Lucas for permission. Lucas was unable to make the press conference but sent John Knoll, Chief Creative Officer of Industrial Light & Magic and Visual Effects Supervisor of Star Wars.

"It's fun and exciting to have something like a Star Wars thing become real," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler Mission Analysis Lead. "It really caught the public's imagination."

Jenkins and Doyle have worked together since 1993, when they were part of a group of astronomers looking for extrasolar planets around other stars.

Prior to his finding, Doyle said astronomers knew planets could form around single stars — but whether a planet could form around two moving gravitational forces was debated. Now their research shows that another type of solar system and its planets formed even though there were two gravitational sources in the middle.

"This was big news because here's another, fundamentally different type of solar system," said Doyle.

According to Doyle, Kepler-16b (aka Tatooine) is a couple hundred light years away from Earth — which is close by, in terms of the galaxy.

"Science fiction becomes science fact," as Doyle and Jenkins have put it in interviews about the discovery.

Out of the seven confirmed circumbinary planets, Kepler-16b and Kepler-47c are the only two that exist in a habitable zone, or at an appropriate distance from the two stars for liquid water to exist, explained Doyle. This astronomical discovery confirms that planets form almost anywhere. To Doyle, this means there must be planets everywhere in the galaxy.

Tatooine and its sisters don't just matter to scientists at SETI and NASA, it has an impact on how people see the galaxy in general.

"It gets you to think and it gets you out of the box thinking big questions," Doyle said. "(People) have to look up sometimes and wonder if there is life in the universe."

Is there life outside of Earth? Doyle said he believes there is and would need heavy evidence to be shown otherwise.

"Given what we know, it would be very hard for me to believe that Earth is the only example of a planet that has life on it," Jenkins said.

The fact that water and other building blocks of life are found throughout the galaxy make it more convincing to some scientists that some forms of life exist beyond the Earth.

Extra-terrestrial life doesn't necessarily mean an intelligent alien race, however.

"I'd be extremely surprised if there weren't life on other planets," Jenkins said. "It may be that there are many more examples of planets where you have primitive life, bacterial life, unicellular life. Multi-cellular organisms may be more rare."

For Jenkins, the goal is to detect any sign of life and confirm it. If proven otherwise, it gives him a chance to revise his thinking, he said.

The biggest take-away from this discovery, in Doyle's opinion, is for people to at least think of the possibilities.

"The most important thing our society can come up with is inspiration," said Doyle.

Email Ashley Finden at afinden@mv-voice.com


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