Mark Hamill (right) as Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford as Han Solo on the icy planet Hoth in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.' Mark Hamill (right) as Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford as Han Solo on the icy planet Hoth in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.' Mark Hamill (right) as Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford as Han Solo on the icy planet Hoth in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.' (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Scientists just discovered a planet out of 'Star Wars'

Visitors to the Hoth-like planet had better bundle up. It's cold out there. Like, really really cold.

There's a scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" that brings chills to movie watchers. Literally.

Watching the sequences that take place on the icy planet Hoth makes a trip to Alaska seem like an exotic getaway. The robot C-3PO is so cold, he remarks, "My joints are freezing up." Well, as it turns out, science fiction is fast becoming science fact. NASA scientists have just discovered a new "iceball" planet that is so cold, it's drawing comparisons to the one from Star Wars.

"While it is covered in ice, at around minus-400 degrees Fahrenheit, it is actually much, much colder than Hoth," said Yossi Shvartzvald, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and lead author of a study about the new planet.

Known for now simply as OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb, the planet is nearly 13,000 light-years away from Earth. (That's just a hop, skip and a jump for spaceships like Han Solo's Millennium Falcon.) It was discovered by an international team, including scientists from U.S., Korea, Poland and Israel.

At a frigid 76 degrees below zero, the temperature on Hoth was still livable for the 15 species that called it home – including a group of towering predators known as wampas and large gray snow lizards called tauntauns. As for the new planet, "It's hard to imagine any life surviving in such an environment, not humans or tauntauns anyway," joked Shvartzvald, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University in Israel, a markedly warmer locale.

An artist's rendering of the new planet OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb.An artist's rendering of the new planet OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb. (Photo: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Lately, scientists have been discovering new planets at an impressive clip. Earlier this month, Shvartzvald was on a team that found a "super-Jupiter mass planet." Both finds were made possible thanks to a technique known as microlensing. Based on the gravitational theories of Albert Einstein, it allows astronomers to detect objects that range from the mass of a planet to the mass of a star, regardless of the light they emit.

Ground-based telescopes available today – like the world's largest in Green Bank, W.Va. – are not able to find smaller planets than this one using the microlensing method. Instead, a highly sensitive telescope in space would be needed. NASA's forthcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), planned for launch in the mid-2020s, will have this capability.

"One of the problems with estimating how many planets like this are out there is that we have reached the lower limit of planet masses that we can currently detect with microlensing," Shvartzvald said. "WFIRST will be able to change that."


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