Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Why some planets orbit the wrong way; extrasolar insights into our solar system

12.05.2011
NSF-funded research in physics and astronomy yields unexpected results

More than 500 extrasolar planets--planets that orbit stars other than the sun--have been discovered since 1995. But only in the last few years have astronomers observed that in some of these systems, the star is spinning one way and the planet is orbiting that star in the opposite direction.


A retrograde hot Jupiter: the transiting giant planet orbits very close to the star and in a direction opposite to the stellar rotation. This peculiar configuration results from gravitational perturbations by another much more distant planet (upper left). Credit: Lynette Cook

"That's really weird, and it's even weirder because the planet is so close to the star," said Frederic A. Rasio, a theoretical astrophysicist at Northwestern University. "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."

The planets in question are typically huge planets called "hot Jupiters" that orbit in very close proximity to their central star. Figuring out how these huge planets got so close to their stars led Rasio and his research team to also explain their flipped orbits. Details of their discovery are published in the May 12th issue of the journal Nature.

"And this discovery is a broader impact of NSF's MRI program support for the acquisition of a computer cluster" said Beverly Berger, an NSF Gravitational Physics Program director. Using it, and performing large-scale computer simulations, Rasio researchers became the first to model how a hot Jupiter's orbit can flip and go in the direction opposite to the star's spin. Gravitational perturbations by a much more distant planet result in the hot Jupiter having both a "wrong way" and a very close orbit.

"Once you get more than one planet, the planets perturb each other gravitationally," Rasio said. "This becomes interesting because that means whatever orbit they were formed on isn't necessarily the orbit they will stay on forever. These mutual perturbations can change the orbits, as we see in these extrasolar systems."

In explaining the peculiar configuration of an extrasolar system, the researchers also have added to our general understanding of planetary system formation and evolution and reflected on what their findings mean for the solar system.

"We had thought our solar system was typical in the universe, but from day one everything has looked weird in the extrasolar planetary systems," Rasio said. "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."

The physics the research team used to solve the problem is basically orbital mechanics, Rasio said, the same kind of physics NASA uses to send satellites around the solar system.

"It was a beautiful problem," said Naoz, "because the answer was there for us for so long. It's the same physics, but no one noticed it could explain hot Jupiters and flipped orbits."

"Doing the calculations was not obvious or easy," Rasio said, "Some of the approximations used by others in the past were really not quite right. We were doing it right for the first time in 50 years, thanks in large part to the persistence of Smadar."

"It takes a smart, young person who first can do the calculations on paper and develop a full mathematical model and then turn it into a computer program that solves the equations," Rasio added. "This is the only way we can produce real numbers to compare to the actual measurements taken by astronomers."

In their model, the researchers assume a star similar to the sun, and a system with two planets. The inner planet is a gas giant similar to Jupiter, and initially it is far from the star, where Jupiter-type planets are thought to form. The outer planet is also fairly large and is farther from the star than the first planet. It interacts with the inner planet, perturbing it and shaking up the system.

The effects on the inner planet are weak but build up over a very long period of time, resulting in two significant changes in the system: the inner gas giant orbits very close to the star and its orbit is in the opposite direction of the central star's spin. The changes occur, according to the model, because the two orbits are exchanging angular momentum, and the inner one loses energy via strong tides.

The gravitational coupling between the two planets causes the inner planet to go into an eccentric, needle-shaped orbit. It has to lose a lot of angular momentum, which it does by dumping it onto the outer planet. The inner planet's orbit gradually shrinks because energy is dissipated through tides, pulling in close to the star and producing a hot Jupiter. In the process, the orbit of the planet can flip.

Only about a quarter of astronomers' observations of these hot Jupiter systems show flipped orbits. The Northwestern model needs to be able to produce both flipped and non-flipped orbits, and it does, Rasio said.

The title of the paper is "Hot Jupiters From Secular Planet-Planet Interactions." In addition to Rasio and Naoz, other authors of the paper are Will M. Farr, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA); Yoram Lithwick, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Jean Teyssandier, a visiting pre-doctoral fellow, all from Northwestern.

The National Science Foundation, Northwestern's CIERA and the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation Fellowship supported the research.

Lisa-Joy Zgorski | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nsf.gov

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht What happens when we heat the atomic lattice of a magnet all of a sudden?
18.07.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin

nachricht Subaru Telescope helps pinpoint origin of ultra-high energy neutrino
16.07.2018 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

Im Focus: Chemical reactions in the light of ultrashort X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers

Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.

Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Metal too 'gummy' to cut? Draw on it with a Sharpie or glue stick, science says

19.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

NSF-supported researchers to present new results on hurricanes and other extreme events

19.07.2018 | Earth Sciences

Scientists uncover the role of a protein in production & survival of myelin-forming cells

19.07.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>