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Sci-Tech

A planet like Star Wars' Tatooine just became more science than fiction

Rocky planets that orbit a binary star system, like the fictional home of Luke Skywalker, were thought to be impossible, until now.

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An artist's rendition of sunset on a real-life Tatooine. Ben Bromley/University of Utah

When Luke Skywalker stares off toward the horizon of Tatooine at a double sunset in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," we know we're watching a moment of pure science fiction. At least, that was the assumption until now, as it appears that the science may have just caught up with the fiction.

So far, astronomers using Kepler Space Telescope data have only identified a handful of planets orbiting binary star systems, but none of them are the Earth-like, habitable -- if extremely tumultuous -- type of orb that spawned Luke and Anakin (although at least one such planet candidate was identified using other techniques). Rather, they tend to be larger gas giants like Neptune or Bespin. (Astronomers have yet to spot any Cloud Cities in the upper atmospheres of these planets.)

The assumption among scientists until now has been that the orbits of potential planetesimals around a two-star system would be more oblong and plagued by "ripples" in their paths rather than the smoother, neat concentric circles seen in solar systems like our own that allow planets to develop without risk of colliding with each other.

But a pair of astrophysicists -- Ben Bromley of the University of Utah and Scott Kenyon of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory -- have released findings that seem to show that rocky planets could actually form around twin suns like those that made a young Skywalker cease his whining for a brief, pensive moment to foreshadow his own rise to greatness.

The basic idea, derived from mathematical computations and simulations, is that while rocky planets might have more oval-like orbits around two stars, they could still be safely nested, allowing for something like Tatooine to develop without getting blasted by one if its neighbors. It would still want to watch out for the destructive rule of the Rakata, though.

The paper, "Planet formation around binary stars: Tatooine made easy," has been submitted to Astrophysical Journal, but a draft is available online.

"We took our sweet numerical time to show that the ride around a pair of stars can be just as smooth as around one," when it comes to the early steps of planet formation, Bromley said in a statement. "The 'made easy' part is really saying the same recipe that works around the sun will work around Tatooine's host stars."

While the findings are exciting for giving new viability to the "Star Wars" universe, the fact remains that any real-life Tatooines could only exist in galaxies far, far away -- or perhaps in our own galaxy, but still far, far away.