The Flip Side of Exoplanet Orbits


It was once thought that our planet was part of a “typical” solar system. Inner rocky worlds, outlying gas giants, some asteroids and comets sprinkled in for good measure. All rotating around a central star in more or less the same direction. Typical.

But after seeing what’s actually out there, it turns out ours may not be so typical after all…

Astronomers researching exoplanetary systems – many discovered with NASA’s Kepler Observatory – have found quite a few containing “hot Jupiters” that orbit their parent star very closely. (A hot Jupiter is the term used for a gas giant – like Jupiter – that resides in an orbit very close to its star, is usually tidally locked, and thus gets very, very hot.) These worlds are like nothing seen in our own solar system…and it’s now known that some actually have retrograde orbits – that is, orbiting their star in the opposite direction.

“That’s really weird, and it’s even weirder because the planet is so close to the star. How can one be spinning one way and the other orbiting exactly the other way? It’s crazy. It so obviously violates our most basic picture of planet and star formation.”

– Frederic A. Rasio, theoretical astrophysicist, Northwestern University

Now retrograde movement does exist in our solar system. Venus rotates in a retrograde direction, so the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and a few moons of the outer planets orbit “backwards” relative to the other moons. But none of the planets in our system have retrograde orbits; they all move around the Sun in the same direction that the Sun rotates. This is due to the principle of conservation of angular momentum, whereby the initial motion of the disk of gas that condensed to form our Sun and afterwards the planets is reflected in the current direction of orbital motions. Bottom line: the direction they moved when they were formed is (generally) the direction they move today, 4.6 billion years later. Newtonian physics is okay with this, and so are we. So why are we now finding planets that blatantly flaunt these rules?

The answer may be: peer pressure.

Or, more accurately, powerful tidal forces created by neighboring massive planets and the star itself.

By fine-tuning existing orbital mechanics calculations and creating computer simulations out of them, researchers have been able to show that large gas planets can be affected by a neighboring massive planet in such a way as to have their orbits drastically elongated, sending them spiraling closer in toward their star, making them very hot and, eventually, even flip them around. It’s just basic physics where energy is transferred between objects over time.

It just so happens that the objects in question are huge planets and the time scale is billions of years. Eventually something has to give. In this case it’s orbital direction.

“We had thought our solar system was typical in the universe, but from day one everything has looked weird in the extrasolar planetary systems. That makes us the oddball really. Learning about these other systems provides a context for how special our system is. We certainly seem to live in a special place.”

– Frederic A. Rasio

Yes, it certainly does seem that way.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Details of the discovery are published in the May 12th issue of the journal Nature.

Read the press release here.

Main image credit: Jason Major. Created from SDO (AIA 304) image of the Sun from October 17, 2010 (NASA/SDO and the AIA science team) and an image of Jupiter taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on October 23, 2000 (NASA/JPL/SSI).

Kepler Discovers a Rare Triple Gem



It may be visible to the naked eye, but it took the unblinking gaze of NASA’s Kepler space telescope to reveal the true triple nature of this star system.

Animation of HD 181068 (click to play)

Unofficially dubbed “Trinity”, object HD 181068 is a multiple star system comprised of three stars: a red giant more than twelve times the diameter of the Sun and two red dwarf stars each slightly smaller than the Sun. The red dwarfs orbit each other in tight rotation around a central point, which in turn orbits the red giant. The smaller stars complete a full orbit around the giant every 45.5 days and, from our point of view, pass directly in front of and behind the huge star.

The orbital eclipse events of HD 181068 last about 2 days. What’s surprising is that during these eclipses the brightness of the system is not affected very much. This is because the surface brightnesses of the three stars are very similar. The current metaphor is a “white rabbit in a snowfall”, wherein the two red dwarfs effectively become invisible when they pass in front of the red giant. It wasn’t until the Kepler mission that we had an observational tool precise enough to detect the structure of this intriguing star system, located 800 light-years away from our own.

“The intriguing nature of this unique system remained unnoticed until now despite the fact that it is nearly bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. We really needed Kepler with its unprecedentedly precise and uninterrupted photometric monitoring to uncover such a rare gem.”

– Aliz Derekas, Eotvos University and Konkoly Observatory, Budapest, Hungary

Another unexpected feature of Trinity is its “quiet” nature. Astronomers have known that red giant stars exhibit seismic oscillations, as does our own Sun. But these oscillations are not present in Trinity’s red giant. Scientists speculate that the two red dwarfs may be creating some sort of gravitational offset, effectively negating the red giant’s vibrations. More research will be needed to determine if this is in fact the case.

Find out more about HD 181068 and other recent Kepler discoveries on NASA’s mission site or in the press release issued by the Ames Research Center, or read the published report on Science.

Image credit: NASA/KASC



New Technique Separates the Modest Red Giants From the … Giant Red Giants

Based on results from the first year of the Kepler mission, researchers have learned a way to distinguish two different groups of red giant stars: the giants, and the truly giant giants. The findings appear this week in Nature.

Red giants, having exhausted the supply of hydrogen in their cores, burn hydrogen in a surrounding shell. Once a red giant is sufficiently evolved, the helium in the core also undergoes fusion. Until now, the very different stages looked roughly the same.

Lead author Timothy Bedding, from the University of Sydney in Australia, and his colleagues used high-precision photometry obtained by the Kepler spacecraft over
more than a year to measure oscillations in several hundred red giants.

Using a technique called asteroseismology, the researchers were able to place the stars into two clear groups, “allowing us to distinguish unambiguously between hydrogen-shell-burning stars (period spacing mostly 50 seconds) and those that are also burning helium (period spacing 100 to 300 seconds),” they write. The latter population lend to the star an oscillation pattern dominated by gravity-mode period spacings.

In a related News and Views article, Travis Metcalfe of the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Atmospheric Research explains that like the sun, “the surface of a red giant seems to boil as convection brings heat up from the interior and radiates it into the coldness of outer space. These turbulent motions act like continuous starquakes, creating sound waves that travel down through the interior and back to the surface.” Some of the sounds, he writes, have just the right tone — a million times lower than what people can hear — to set up standing waves known as oscillations that cause the entire star to change its brightness regularly over hours and days, depending on its size. Asteroseismology is a method to measure those oscillations.

Metcalfe goes on to explain that a red giant’s life story depends not only on its age but also on its mass, with stars smaller than about twice the mass of the sun undergoing a sudden ignition called a helium flash.

“In more massive stars, the transition to helium core burning is gradual, so the stars exhibit a wider range of core sizes and never experience a helium flash. Bedding and colleagues show how these two populations can be distinguished observationally using their oscillation modes, providing new data to validate a previously untested prediction of stellar evolution theory,” he writes.

The study authors conclude that their new measurement of gravity-mode period spacings “is an extremely reliable parameter for distinguishing between stars in these two evolutionary stages, which are known to have very different core densities but are otherwise very similar in their fundamental properties (mass, luminosity and radius). We note that other asteroseismic observables, such as the small p-mode separations, are not able to do this.”

Source: Nature

Amazing Image: Kepler’s Transiting Exoplanets


Wow. This remarkable visualization shows every Kepler planetary candidate host star with its transiting companion in silhouette. Jason Rowe from the Kepler science team created the image, and the sizes of the stars and transiting companions are properly scaled. For reference, Rowe has included the Sun with a transiting Earth and Jupiter (below the top row on the right by itself.) The largest star is 6.1 times larger that the Sun and the smallest stars are estimated to be only 0.3 times the radius of the Sun. On his Flickr page, Rowe says the colors of the stars represent how the eye would see the star outside of the Earths atmosphere. “Stars have been properly limb darkened and the companions have been offset relative to one another to match the modeled impact parameter. Some stars will even show more than one planet!” he writes.

For more information and high resolution versions of the image, see Jason Rowe’s Flickr page. This image is featured on today’s (March 29, 2011) Astronomy Picture of the Day.