Until recently, astronomers only knew about exoplanets which, like those in our own solar system, orbited a single star. Then, the first one was discovered which orbits two stars, much like Tatooine in the Star Wars films. Since then, other similar planets have been found, indicating that such circumbinary planets (those which orbit double stars) may be fairly common.
The number of confirmed exoplanets found by the Kepler space telescope has increased again, by 41. The planets, which orbit 20 different stars, range in size from about the same size as Earth to more than seven times Earth’s radius.
Not too long ago, the Kepler space telescope discovered the first exoplanet which orbited two binary stars (a circumbinary star system). Such planets had been thought possible, but this was the first confirmed detection of a world reminiscent of the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars films, a planet with a double sunrise and double sunset.
As the number of exoplanets being found by the Kepler space telescope continues to grow into the thousands, it can start to feel overwhelming (in a good way though). So many worlds found so far, and many more, probably millions, waiting to be discovered.
The Kepler planetary candidates are of a wide variety, orbiting different kinds of stars. Some are large gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, and others are small and rocky, like Earth. The most current observations now suggest that they are common in the universe, maybe even outnumbering the stars themselves.
The Kepler space telescope has been finding a wide variety of alien worlds, as well as solar systems that they reside in. In our own solar system, the planets are in nice, neat orbits which are aligned with the Sun’s equator, consistent with the idea that they formed from a relatively flat, spinning disk of gas and dust around the Sun billions of years ago.
So far, other solar systems found haven’t tended to follow that pattern. Did that mean our solar system was a fluke? But now, Kepler has found one, about 10,000 light-years away. Scientists at MIT, the University of California at Santa Cruz and other institutions made the discovery from analysis of Kepler data.