Science Scanner: NASA Finds New Planets with Twin Suns

Posted January 11th, 2012 at 11:30 pm (UTC-4)
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This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b, a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Artist's concept of Kepler-16b, a circumbinary planet (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Remember when Luke Skywalker watched the double sunset of Tatooine’s twin suns in 1977’s Star Wars “Episode IV: A New Hope?”

Well, reality took a page from fiction today as NASA astronomers announced the discovery of two new “twin-sun” planets in Nature.

According to NASA’s Kepler Mission,  planets which orbit two stars – like the fictional Tatoonine – are called circumbinary planet systems, and are actually quite common.

In fact, many millions exist in our galaxy.

The two new planetary systems announced by NASA today are both gaseous, Saturn-sized planets named Kepler-34 b and Kepler-35 b.

They are in the constellation Cygnus, about 4,900 to 5,400 light-years from Earth which, according to NASA, also makes them among the most distant planets discovered.

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Habitable planets may be plentiful in the Milky Way

Artist's rendering gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. (Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Artist's rendering gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. (Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Meanwhile, astronomers have also found that most of the Milky Way‘s 100 billion stars have habitable planets very similar to planets in our own Solar System, such as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

(Planets like Jupiter and Saturn are considered to be a rare find in our galaxy.)

The finding, published in Nature, is based on six years of observation of millions of stars, using a method that’s highly sensitive to planets which lie in a habitable zone around the host stars.

“Our results show that planets orbiting around stars are more the rule than the exception,” says astronomer Uffe Gråe Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen. “In a typical Solar System, approximately four planets have their orbits in the terrestrial zone, which is the distance from the star where you can find solid planets. On average, there are 1.6 planets in the area around the stars that corresponds to the area between Venus and Saturn.”

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Study: Marijuana may be less damaging to lungs than tobacco

(Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

(Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

Those who advocate for legalized marijuana use may have a new and comprehensive medical study to add to their arguments.

The study suggests low-to-moderate use of marijuana is less harmful to users’ lungs than exposure to tobacco, even though the two substances contain many of the same components.

“Essentially with tobacco, the more you use, the more loss you have with both of the indicators; air flow rate and lung volume,” says Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the authors of the study. “There’s a straight-line relationship: the more you use, the more you lose.”

But the findings show the same is not true with marijuana use. Air flow rate increased, rather than decreased, with increased exposure to marijuana – up to a certain level.

Researchers weren’t able to get reliable estimates as to whether very heavy use of marijuana takes a toll on the lungs, since participants who smoke large amounts of marijuana were relatively rare in the study’s research population.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco were also involved in the study.

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Parasite fly might be responsible for lost honeybee colonies

Fly larvae emerge from a bee after being deposited in the bee's abdomen several days earlier. (Photo: Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al.)

Fly larvae emerge from a bee after being deposited in the bee's abdomen several days earlier. (Photo: Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al.)

Researchers at San Francisco State University have spotted deadly fly parasites in honey bees that cause them to abandon their hives and die after a bout of disoriented, “zombie-like” behavior.

The discovery could help explain the dramatic drop in the number of honey bee colonies in North America and some European countries.

The massive loss of the honey bees has been blamed on a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

While the actual cause of CCD is unknown, scientists have been working to solve this troubling ecological dilemma.

Professor John Hafernik of San Francisco State University says, so far, the fly parasite has only been found in honey bee hives in California and South Dakota.

According to the new study, published by PLos One, it’s possible it is an emerging parasite that “underlines the danger that could threaten honey bee colonies throughout North America, especially given the number of states that commercial hives cross and are deployed in.”

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Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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