NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered its first multiple-planet binary star system. The system, Kepler 47, is 4,900 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. While theorised, it has never been confirmed before that a planet could survive the tidal forces produced by the gravity of two stars in close proximity.
The inner planet, Kepler-47b, orbits the pair of stars in less than 50 days. While it cannot be directly viewed, it is thought to be a sweltering world, where the destruction of methane in its super-heated atmosphere might lead to a thick haze that could blanket the planet. At three times the radius of Earth, Kepler-47b is the smallest known transiting circumbinary planet.
The outer planet, Kepler-47c, orbits its host pair every 303 days, placing it in the so-called “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet. While not a world hospitable for life, Kepler-47c is thought to be a gaseous giant slightly larger than Neptune, where an atmosphere of thick bright water-vapor clouds might exist.
To search for transiting planets, the research team used data from the Kepler space telescope, which measures dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars. Additional ground-based spectroscopic observations using telescopes at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin helped characterize the stellar properties. The findings are published in the journal Science (August 28th 2012).