Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Las Cumbres Helps Confirm Planet With Two Suns

• September 16, 2011 • 5:25 PM

A retired Google exec’s dream of ringing the planet with telescopes available to kids and professional astronomers has assisted in some recent discoveries.

Three years ago, Lisa Conti told us about the retired Google honcho who set about ringing the globe with a network of telescopes available to both school kids and astrophysicists. That effort paid a dividend, made public this week, as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network contributed to discovering a planet that orbits two suns, the first such planet definitively identified by human astronomers.

This “circumbinary planet,” to use its fancy name, was detected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope near the constellation Cygnus. (Even NASA couldn’t resist drawing attention to another circumbinary planet in pop culture: Tatooine, the planet where Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars mythos grew up.)

Kepler’s mission is to find habitable planets by looking for a dip in a star’s brightness — eclipses, really — as a hint that a planet is transiting. It pays special attention to bodies roughly the size of Earth in a planetary system’s “habitable zone,” i.e. at the right distance from the star to allow liquid water to exist on a planet’s surface. This latest discovery, dubbed Kepler-16b, is predicted by NASA to be “an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas.” (Dusty and dry Tatooine was habitable, just.)

Las Cumbres Helps Confirm Planet With Two Suns

Astrophysicist Avi Shporer, a member of both the Kepler team and Las Cumbres network, sits in front of a picture from "Star Wars IV: A New Hope," in which Luke Skywalker watches the two setting sun of his home planet, Tatooine. Recently, Las Cumbres contributed to discovering a planet that orbits two suns, the first such planet definitively identified by human astronomers.

The two suns of the Kepler-16 system played a game of celestial tag that produced brightness dips as one crossed the path of the other; when a third dip occurred, Kepler’s researchers felt they had a planet on the hook. The team, led by Laurance Doyle of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, then examined changes in gravitational pull — fiddly work at 200 lights years away — to determine that this third body had the right mass to be a planet.

While the space telescope is busy making a first identification, the ground-based telescopes of Las Cumbres, among others, wrestle the sighting down until it’s unambiguous. That’s what happened here, explained University of California, Santa Barbara, astrophysicist Avi Shporer, a member of both the Kepler team and Las Cumbres network.

“I used one of our telescopes, the Faulkes Telescope North [in Hawaii], to observe Kepler-16. The data was used at the beginning of the process of verifying the target is ‘real,’ meaning it is really a planet orbiting a double star system and not something else. You can think of it as observations done for initial screening of false positives.”

“At [Las Cumbres], we are using our telescopes as part of the large effort carried out by U.S. astronomers and others, to follow up and accurately characterize the detections made by Kepler,” Tim Brown, the network’s scientific director, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the Kepler team, explained in a release.

While Faulkes is in Hawaii, the Las Cumbres project has or plans to have telescopes in at least seven sites around the world, including California and Texas in the U.S., Australia, Chile and the Canary Islands.

As Conti wrote in 2008: “The programmable telescopes collect immense amounts of data. Should something occur — a near-planet asteroid, for example — they can be steered to the event within 20 seconds. And with robotic telescopes around the world, an observation that starts in one location can continue elsewhere, increasing the viewing time from eight hours to around the clock. As the nonprofit’s slogan puts it, ‘We will always keep you in the dark.’”

This discovery is one of many that Las Cumbres has assisted on, including an exploding star that made news late last month.That supernova first was picked up by a 48-inch telescope at Palomar Mountain in California.

Wayne Rosing, a retired Google vice president of engineering and one of the brains behind the Java platform, founded Las Cumbres. His plan was not only to help keep the skies under constant surveillance for scientific purposes, but also to provide an outlet for school children to get excited about astronomy. “If we can help another generation — the upcoming generation of young people — appreciate the notion of a scientific way of looking at the world,” he told Conti, “we will have made an important contribution.”

Speaking of contributions, Shporer said Kepler, which was launched in March 2009, probably has its most interesting discoveries ahead of it.

This discovery of Kepler-16b was announced in the journal Science.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.