In the blockbuster movie franchise Star Wars, Tatooine is a fictional desert planet that serves as the homeworld to heavily robed Jawas, xenophobic Tusken Raiders, and, of course, the noble Luke Skywalker. Though the planet itself is rather barren and impoverished, fans of the movies may recall that it has a certain beauty to it. Specifically, Tatooine is a circumbinary planet — one that orbits a pair of stars rather than just one — giving the world its iconic double sunset.
Because circumbinary planets circle two stars instead of one, they routinely experience erratic orbits, which often results in them being either ejected from the system altogether, or cannibalized by one of the system’s stars. To calculate the odds of a given exoplanet surviving long enough to evolve life, astronomers must solve a notoriously difficult problem known as a three-body problem. The tricky part is that three-body problems can quickly devolve into chaos, and astronomers often have trouble solving them accurately. In a study recently published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the researchers show that calculations carried out by artificial intelligence can make more accurate predictions than humans can about the long-term stability of circumbinary planets.
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