Science

Published on June 22nd, 2012 | by James Ayre

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Two Newly Discovered Planets Locked In Strange Orbit

June 22nd, 2012 by

 
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Astronomers working on NASA’s Kepler Mission have discovered two planets of very different composition and densities, locked in extremely close orbits to each other around their parent star.

One of the planets is a rocky ‘super-Earth’ about 1.5 times the size of our planet and 4.5 times the mass. The other is a ‘Neptune-like’ gaseous planet 3.7 times the size of Earth and eight times the mass. Following their very similar orbits, the planets get 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system, at a distance where each planet would appear considerably larger in each other’s sky than the Moon appears from the Earth.

The star system that these planets were discovered in is called Kepler-36, and is located around 1,200 light years from Earth. It’s a perfect example of extrasolar planets breaking radically with the patterns of our solar system. In ours, and it was thought everywhere, rocky planets orbit close to the sun and gas giants orbit much farther away.

“The planetary system reported in this paper is another example of an ‘extreme’ planetary system that will serve as a stimulus to theories of planet migration and orbital rearrangement,” researchers wrote in the paper.

 

“Small, rocky planets should form in the hot part of the solar system, close to their host star – like Mercury, Venus and Earth in our Solar System. Bigger, less dense planets – Jupiter, Uranus – can only form farther away from their host, where it is cool enough for volatile material like water ice, and methane ice to collect. In some cases, these large planets can migrate close in after they form, during the last stages of planet formation, but in so doing they should eject or destroy the low-mass inner planets,” Steve Kawaler, an Iowa State University professor of astronomy and physics is quoted as saying. Along with other researchers he created a description of the host star, measuring changes in the star’s brightness to get an exact idea of it’s size, mass, and age.

“Here, we have a pair of planets in nearby orbits but with very different densities. How they both got there and survived is a mystery.”

The discovery was possible because of NASA’s Kepler Mission. Kepler is a spacecraft launched in 2009 to find Earth-like planets that could potentially host life as we know it. The spacecraft uses a photometer to measure changes in the brightness of alien stars. These tiny variations in the brightness of a star are an indication of a possible orbiting planet. And also, with further observation, lead to knowledge of a planet’s size, orbit, and composition.

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Data from that photometer is also used by the Kepler Asteroseismic Investigation to study star oscillations (changes in brightness), which give insight into a star’s internal structure. The research is led by a four-member steering committee: Kawaler, Chair Ron Gilliland of the Space Telescope Science Institute based in Baltimore, Jorgen Christensen-Dalsgaard and Hans Kjeldsen, both of Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark.

The Kepler spacecraft was essential to the discovery of “this puzzling pair of planets,” according to Kawaler.

“The seismic signal is very small, and only Kepler has the sensitivity and persistence to reveal it,” Kawaler said. “Also, the transit signal from the planets crossing in front of the star is very small, and only visible with Kepler’s level of sensitivity.”

Source: Iowa State University
Image Credits: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar, NASA

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • Trooper

    Whats with the Coment coming our way I wonder

    • Trooper

      To many Solar Flares This Year also and well Natural /Unnatural Worldwide disasters occuring hmmmmm

  • Trooper

    Just wondering about end of 2012 and 2013 with the planet earth it sure is Quite about what is going on Why

  • Scott

    Can anyone tell me what “…planets get 30 times closer…” means? The astronomy’s not the problem, the grammar is. Thirty times further apart makes sense, but what does 30 times closer mean? Maybe the author mean the minimum inter-planet distance is 1/30 of the smallest inter-planet distance in our solar system?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com Zachary Shahan

      there’s really nothing confusing here. “the planets get 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system.” how can you not understand what that is saying? it’s like, i’m 1000 times closer to my computer than you are — got it?

  • KU37

    This article originally read: “The planets orbit each other at a distance 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system.”

    Apparently it was corrected to: “Following their very similar orbits, the planets get 30 times closer…”

    Planets do not orbit each other, they orbit their star.

  • Firstrule

    I wonder if it took God 6 days to create those planets, just as the bible says that it took him 6 days to create earth. Also, do you think that he needed to rest after creating those?

    • Matt

      Gods not real.

      • Jessi

        Dude, you can’t be serious. I mean come on. Really? No God? Even science has found the omega code in all DNA. Even Archaic DNA. Science has proved that that God exists. Heck, just look in the mirror. lol… Some people are so misguided…Feel sorry for ya my friend. Ya must not know much about science or maybe just haven’t done enough research. I guess we can let that slide. But, remember, there are no excuses for ignorance. We must all investigate the facts on our own and come to our own conclusions. I challenge you to do just that. YOU CAAANN DOOOO IIIIIT! LOL…

      • http://zacharyshahan.com Zachary Shahan

        Gods are not real? Or God’s not real? Think you mean the latter. In any case, though, that’s arrogance at its height. To claim that you know that there is no such thing as “God” is hilarious to me, but also a bit sad, since you must be mired in some extreme arrogance that makes your life just that much less enjoyable. Keep on truckin’, dude… everyone’s got their challenges.

        • dster

          The Dali Lama doesn’t necessarily believe in God. Zen Buddhism for instance teaches that sentient beings come into existence when the conditions are right. However I would hardly consider him arrogant.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com Zachary Shahan

            there’s a HUGE difference between not believing in God and saying “Gods not real.” And that difference is in one’s level of humility or arrogance.

  • mike

    so… pluto’s a planet again?

    • http://zacharyshahan.com Zachary Shahan

      last i heard, thought it was, but maybe i’m wrong…

  • tommym

    In one Hayden Planetarium Show in NYC (before it was rebuild as the Rose Planetarium) the narrator stated that, from afar, the Earth and the Moon would appear to an observer like twin planets. This had to do with their motion through space: as the Earth orbits the Sun, which is following its own orbit through the Galaxy. Although the Moon orbits the Earth, their ‘absolute’ motion would appear more like a double helix, twin corkscrewing relative to each other, in their more long-term cosmic trajectory.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com Zachary Shahan

      interesting..

  • james

    And this is surprising because?!?
    To read some news media, you’d have thought we’d already discovered everything there is to know about the universe.

  • KU37

    “The planets orbit each other at a distance 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system.”

    If these two planets orbited each other, wouldn’t one of them be called a moon instead of a planet?

    • blah

      Moon’s orbit a planet, a planet does not orbit a moon. There are also other things that help classify what a moon is. These do not meet those classifications. These are two planets that orbit each other.

    • Neil

      No, not since they are both orbiting their star. One would have to orbit around the other planet for it to be a moon.

    • LA

      To be a moon one would have to orbit the other. These both orbit the sun. It’d be like saying Tire A on a bike is close to Tire B, thus Tire B needs Tire A to spin. That isn’t necessarily true (they can spin of their own accord, say if you are going downhill), as they are both part of the bike instead of eachother (thought that’s not to say they don’t influence eachother at all. I imagine the gravitational force of each could pull them closer, much like pedaling the bike makes the back tire move)

    • feen

      It never mentioned that they orbit around each other. They just orbit the sun at a very similar distance. It didn’t really get into detail, but I am sure they are only close to each other sometimes, and more often are very far apart.

  • Chad

    Is this in the Lars Van Trier System?

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