NASA announced today that the Kepler spacecraft, on an exploratory mission since 2009, had discovered the very first planet on record to orbit around two sun-like stars at once. Sound familiar? Said Kepler project scientist Nick Gautier during a press conference at Ames Research Center, “It’s the best example we have of a Tatooine-like world from Star Wars. We don’t expect to find Luke Skywalker or anything else living there, but you if you could visit there, you would see a sky with two suns, just like Luke did.”
Kepler 16b, as the new planet is officially known, is not in a galaxy far, far away, but some 200 light years from Earth, potentially visible to amateur astronomers within the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. And to help better conjure the eerie parallel between it and the fictional Tatooine, the Ames Center called on ILM’s John Knoll, Photoshop pioneer and legendary VFX supervisor on three of the Star Wars films, to help today’s panel of scientists and astrophysicists explain how fact is often much wilder than fiction.
Knoll rolled a clip from Star Wars to set the scene and said that planets with two orbiting suns were not known to be possible at the time George Lucas began writing his science fiction epic. “When he envisioned Tatooine, he was using a visual shorthand to wordlessly show that we’re not on Earth and we’re in this exotic place,” said Knoll. “In the film, that image comes at a very emotional moment and is a very memorable scene.” Kepler 16b, he said, “is unambiguous and dramatic proof that stars really do form around binaries. It’s possible that there’s a real Tatooine out there, that a planet like that could exist.”
In a lighter moment, Knoll nudged the discussion back to the facts at hand. “I’ve been to the fictional Tatooine,” he said, “and unlike Kepler 16b,” which likely has temperatures approximating the coldest parts of Antarctica, “it was a very hot place. And I’ll be honest with you, it looks an awful lot like North Africa.”
Kepler is NASA’s first mission able to locate Earth-sized planets orbiting Sun-sized stars, and more important, hone in on that planet’s “habitable zone” where the presence of liquid water might produce and sustain life. Said SETI’s principal investigator Dr. Laurence Doyle, who first suggested to NASA that circumbinary planets “would be really neat to find” and wrote the paper on Kepler 16b appearing today in the journal Science, the planet and it orbiting stars — one large and bright orange and the other weaker and red — “would have very dynamic and dramatic sunsets. But if you were to try to tell time by a sundial, you’d need calculus to figure out what time it is.”
Illustration credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
While ILM has not been hired — yet — to further visualize Kepler’s findings, the discovery will no doubt give VFX artists, and stargazers everywhere, yet another compelling axis on which to build their visions of alternate worlds. “When I was a kid,” said Knoll, “I never imagined that it would ever be possible to make discoveries like this. I’m amazed by the observation methods used by Kepler, the way it was able to extract this information in such a clever manner. In film, we’re frequently called upon to depict something that’s never been seen before. And again and again, we see that the science is stranger and much cooler than fiction.” There is great inspiration to be had, he added. “I have no doubt that discoveries like these influence other storytellers to dream bigger.”
(top image credit: Lucasfilm)
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