Artist's rendering of planet Kepler 16b, a.k.a. Tatooine

This just in from space: The newly-discovered planet Kepler 16b already has a movie-friendly nickname courtesy of the astronomers who found it: Tatooine. That's because it's the first planet that earthbound stargazers have ever found which orbits two suns -- just like Luke Skywalker's home world in 'Star Wars.'
"Reality has finally caught up with science fiction," said Alan P. Boss of the Carnegie Institution, a member of the research team that found the new planet, at a press conference yesterday, according to the New York Times.

Much was made of the connection between reality and science fiction during Thursday's announcement at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, California. In fact, John Knoll, a visual effects supervisor at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic who worked on several 'Star Wars' movies, was on hand at the event and showed a clip from 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope' that depicts Tatooine's famous binary sunset.

'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope': The Binary Sunset on Tatooine

According to the astronomers -- who made the discovery via NASA's Kepler spacecraft -- Tatooine is likely a ball of gas and rock that's about the size of Saturn. It's 200 light-years away, in the Cygnus constellation. The two suns are different sizes, and both are much smaller than our sun. Tatooine is about as far from the center of its solar system as Venus is from our sun. The planet orbits the pair of suns once every 229 days. The two suns spin around each other every 41 days.

The discovery of Tatooine is forcing astronomers to rethink their theories of how planets form and achieve stable orbits, since Kepler 16b is twice as close to its two suns as earlier models had predicted. Scientists have found billions of binary star systems, but not until now have they confirmed the existence of a planet orbiting any of them.

Weather-wise, Kepler 16b is a lot closer to frigid Hoth (of 'Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back') than it is to the sweltering desert world of Tatooine as depicted throughout the 'Star Wars' saga. The shifting suns cause rapid and dramatic variations in temperature, which can go from minus 100 to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of days.

Lucasfilm's Kroll seemed anything but disappointed by that discrepancy. "Again and again we see that the science is stranger and weirder than fiction," he said. "The very existence of this discovery gives us cause to dream bigger."

[New York Times via EW/PopWatch]

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
categories Movies, Sci-Fi