NASA astronomers sight a completely out-of-whack planetary system

October 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

Astronomers searching for exoplanets have discovered a remote solar system like none they’ve ever seen before: The star’s two planets orbit it at tilted and completely misaligned angles, as if some other large body had knocked them irretrievably out of their proper orbits. The discovery holds implications for our understanding of other star systems, the astronomers add.

The astronomers, who published a report of their findings this week in Science, were affiliated with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California, and discovered the misaligned star system while sifting through data that NASA’s Kepler telescope had compiled in its final year before going permanently offline earlier this spring. The star, which they named Kepler-56 and report to be about 2,800 light-years from Earth, has two planets that both orbit it at 45-degree angles.

Kepler’s data indicated the planets’ presence in the form of repeated oscillations in Kepler-56’s outgoing light energy—it was obvious to the researchers that some object or objects was continuously rotating it and getting in the way of its light respective of Earth. The oscillations may have been all the easier to spot given the planets’ very close proximity to the star. Both planets, according to the Ames astronomers, are closer to their star than Mercury is close to our sun.

A certain amount of tilt in a planet’s orbit around its star is normal. Our own planet runs at a 7.2-degree tilt as it makes its way around the sun. Planets exhibiting steeper angles have cropped up in other star systems in the last five years. Some planetary systems even have planets that orbit their stars backwards—the star spins on its own axis in one direction, while the planet orbits the star in the other direction.

Never before, however, have astronomers found a star system whose planets’ orbits are anywhere as lopsided as that of Kepler-56. The astronomers conducted follow-up observations through the Keck 1 telescope at the Mauna Kea facility in Hawaii and verified that a third, unknown gravity-wielding body is at work tilting their orbits beyond the norm. It would pull them completely out of orbit, except that the two planets have enough mutual resonance to keep each other in rotation.

The Kepler-56 system is more than a curiosity item. The astronomers state that its unusual formation has implications for our understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve. In particular, it sheds some light on why some giant exoplanets settled into their orbits far closer to their host stars than Mercury’s distance relative to the sun.

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