16 Cygni

StarDate: August 27, 2009

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Cygnus, the swan, is one of the most distinctive constellations in the sky. Its bright stars form the shape of a giant cross. But one of the most intriguing stars in Cygnus is just barely visible to the unaided eye, about 70 light-years away. It's a family of at least three stars -- one of which has a planet.

One of the most intriguing things about 16 Cygni is that its two brightest stars resemble the Sun. They're about as massive as the Sun, and about the same brightness and temperature, although they may be a few billion years older.

Since the stars are so much like our own Sun, they're a logical place to look for life-bearing planets. And in fact, 16 Cygni does have at least one planet. It orbits the fainter of the Sun-like stars once every two years.

The planet is a gas giant like Jupiter, so it probably doesn't have life -- and certainly not life like that here on Earth. But other planets could also orbit the stars of 16 Cygni -- worlds more like Earth.

The Kepler spacecraft is hunting for such planets right now. 16 Cygni is one of about a hundred thousand star systems that the observatory is keeping its eye on. Over the next three years, it'll watch 16 Cygni and its other targets without a break. If an Earth-like planet passes in front of one of the stars, the star's light will get a tiny bit fainter. Such an event would tell us that 16 Cygni is a great target for future searches for life beyond Earth.

Script by Ken Croswell and Damond Benningfield

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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