Worlds That Will Make You Believe Star Wars is Real
The fantastical planets in Star Wars preceded our discovery of real planets outside our solar system…but fiction isn’t too far from the facts. When we send our spacecraft into the solar system and point our telescopes beyond, we often see things that seem taken right out of the Star Wars universe.
Is there a more perfect time than May the 4th to compare real worlds to the ones depicted in Star Wars?
Probably not…so here are a few:
Saturn’s moon, Mimas, has become known as the “Death Star” moon because of how its 80-mile wide Herschel crater creates a resemblance to the Imperial battle station, especially when seen in this view from our Cassini spacecraft.
The most recently revealed exoplanet dubbed as Earth’s bigger, older cousin, Kepler-452b, might make a good stand-in for Coruscant — the high tech world seen in several Star Wars films whose surface is encased in a single, globe-spanning city. Kepler-452b belongs to a star system 1.5 billion years older than Earth’s! That would give any technologically adept species more than a billion-year jump ahead of us.
At 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, CoRoT-7B is a HOT planet. Discovered in 2010 with France’s CoRoT satellite, it’s some 480 light-years away, and has a diameter 70% larger than Earth’s, with nearly five times the mass. Possibly the boiled-down remnant of a Saturn-sized planet, its orbit is so tight that its star looms much larger in its sky than our sun appears to us, keeping its sun-facing surface molten! This scorching planet orbiting close to its star could be a good analog for planet Mustafar from Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, is said to possess a harsh, desert environment, swept by sandstorms as it roasts under the glare of twin suns. Real exoplanets in the thrall of two or more suns are even harsher! Kepler-16b was the Kepler telescope’s first discovery of a planet in a “circumbinary” orbit (a.k.a, circling both stars, as opposed to just one, in a double star system). This planet, however, is likely cold, about the size of Saturn, and gaseous, though partly composed of rock.
Fictional Hoth is a frozen tundra that briefly serves as a base for the hidden Rebel Alliance. It’s also the nickname of real exoplanet OGLE-2005-BLG-390, a cold super-Earth whose surface temperature clocks in at minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kepler-22b, analog to the Star Wars planet Kamino…which was the birthplace of the army of clone soldiers, is a super-Earth that could be covered in a super ocean. The jury is still out on Kepler-22b’s true nature; at 2.4 times Earth’s radius, it might even be gaseous. But if the ocean world idea turns out to be right, we can envision a physically plausible Kamino-like planet.
Gas giants of all stripes populate the real exoplanet universe; in Star Wars, a gas giant called Bespin is home to a “Cloud City” actively involved in atmospheric mining. Mining the atmospheres of giant gas planets is a staple of science fiction. We too have examined the question, and found that gases such as helium-3 and hydrogen could theoretically be extracted from the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune.
Endor, the forested realm of the Ewoks, orbits a gas giant. Exomoon detection is still in its infancy for scientists on Earth. However, a possible exomoon (a moon circling a distant planet) was observed in 2014 via microlensing. It will remain unconfirmed, however, since each microlensing event can be seen only once.
But what exactly does that mean? These planets were previously seen by our spacecraft, but have now been verified. Kepler’s candidates require verification to determine if they are actual planets, and not another object, such as a small star, mimicking a planet. This announcement more than doubles the number of verified planets from Kepler.
Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets. These follow-up observations are often time and resource intensive. This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously.
They employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.
What that means in English: Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs. If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.
The Basics: Our Kepler space telescope measures the brightness of stars. The data will look like an EKG showing the heart beat. Whenever a planet passes in front of its parent star a viewed from the spacecraft, a tiny pulse or beat is produced. From the repeated beats, we can detect and verify the existence of Earth-size planets and learn about their orbits and sizes. This planet-hunting technique is also known as the Transit Method.
The number of planets by size for all known exoplanets, planets that orbit a sun-like star, can be seen in the above graph. The blue bars represent all previously verified exoplanets by size, while the orange bars represent Kepler’s 1,284 newly validated planets announced on May 10.
While our original Kepler mission has concluded, we have more than 4 years of science collected that produced a remarkable data set that will be used by scientists for decades. The spacecraft itself has been re-purposed for a new mission, called K2 – an extended version of the original Kepler mission to new parts of the sky and new fields of study.
The above visual shows all the missions we’re currently using, and plan to use, in order to continue searching for signs of life beyond Earth.