Twin Suns: Science Fact

The setting of the burning twin suns of Tatooine behind Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is one of the most recognised moments in science fiction movie history; with the choral song of the movie's original soundtrack creeping ever higher, the young protagonist peered out across his barren homeland and surveyed the desert heat pouring down from the binary stars. Capturing the imagination of millions of people in its 1979 premier, Star Wars explored science fantasy in a magical space opera filled with entertaining ideals but little real scientific substance.


Or so it seemed. Scientists have now proven that at least one of the movie's major visual wonders, the twin suns, are not only a possibility but a physical fact.

Binary star systems were previously thought to have been utterly inhabitable as a solar region. The physics itself would call for their gravitational pull to be of such immensity that orbiting planets would spiral consistently inwards until they were destroyed by the stars. Never mind the fact that two suns together would arrange a somewhat uneven orbit for planets to negotiate. It was of such a peculiarly unimaginable science that until now it had been dismissed by physicists as impossible.

The new facts have arisen from a team of astronomers working on the Spitzer Space Telescope, a fundamental part of the NASA program and manned by scientists from the prestigious Caltech institute. Their findings suggest that solar systems like the one in which we reside can be formed just as easily around close binary stars as they do around a single sun; and thus binary systems are likely to occur just as often as normal systems. What is of greater interest is the team's discovery that binary stars in very close orbit are more likely to harbour disks - and potentially planets – than single-star systems. This leaves wide open the possibility that there are far more functioning solar systems in the universe than previously thought.