‘Star Wars’ inspires science: U of U researcher says planets with two suns may be widespread

Posted at 10:34 PM, Apr 04, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-05 00:35:25-04

SALT LAKE CITY – A planet from the “Star Wars” movies featured a visually striking sunset thanks to the presence of two suns, and now science fiction has inspired scientists to discover more about how planets are formed and theorize that planets orbiting two stars may actually be widespread in our galaxy.

Tatooine is the home of Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars", and the desert planet is famous for its twin sunsets—shown in a scene early on into Episode IV. Researchers at the University of Utah said they now believe planets like Tatooine are real.

"The sunset that Luke Skywalker saw on his home planet Tatooine was inspirational to us, it showed us a normal planet, well it looks like Utah, and yet it was around this very, very exotic pair of stars,” said Ben Bromley, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah.

With the idea that planets that can host life can be anywhere in the universe, Bromley decided to take a close look at the dwarf planet Pluto.

Bromley co-authored a study with Scott Kenyon of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Pluto has a large moon called Charon, and together they form a binary partnership. Once the researchers understood how particles flow around a binary system, they immediately saw a connection with the stars—like the host stars for the planet Tatooine.

“So we examined planet formation, this scaled-up version of Pluto and Charon around binary stars, and realized that yes, you can make Earth-like Tatooines around stars outside the universe, and it's very gratifying to work on something like Pluto in our own solar system and have a result that applies to the universe at large," Bromley said.

In July, NASA’s New Horizons mission will get a close look at the Pluto-Charon system.

“Which is a very exciting event, we want to understand how those moons came about,” Bromley said.

Bromley and Kenyon hope the mission finds new satellite formations--very small moons that have yet to be discovered. Scientists have long thought that planets like Earth couldn't form around binaries because the gravity of the binary stars would make it so particles that would form a planet could not come together. But, by using mathematics and computer simulations, this new research says that is not the case.

"Our work shows that there could be millions of Tatooines in our own galaxy, and our galaxy is one of many, many in the vast universe,” Bromley said.