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The First Direct Image of a Tatooine-Like System

Twenty years ago, humans had never identified a single planet outside our own solar system. Now we have pictures.

Artist's rendering of Kepler-16b (NASA)

Last fall, to much geeky fanfare, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-16b or, as everybody liked to call it, Tatooine, because, like the Star Wars world, Kepler-16b orbits two suns.

Scientists found the planet not by seeing it but by seeing its shadow: NASA's Kepler mission detects tiny variations in the light of distant stars. If dips in brightness occur with regularity, they deduce that a planet is transiting across the hemisphere of the star that faces us.

So although NASA could say with certainty that Tatooine was there, the only show NASA could provide for its show-and-tell were artists' renderings.


Now a team of scientists based all around the world has discovered another Tatooine-like planet (or possibly a failed star known as a brown dwarf, since its size is so, so massive), this one by the technical name of 2MASS0103(AB)b, and this time they have an actual picture, taken in infrared light, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory in Chile:

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This image of Tatooine follows on the heels of another recent direct image, this one of the four planets (or, again, possibly brown dwarfs) of a distant solar system known HR 8799, created by a team at the American Museum of Natural History (right).

Twenty years ago, humans had never identified a single planet outside our own solar system. Now the Kepler mission has confirmed 114, has an additional 2,740 candidates on its list, and astronomers contend there may be 17 billion in our galaxy alone. Year after year we're getting a better picture of the galaxy beyond our sun's bubble -- literally, as we start to get actual images of these distant worlds.