Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flippin' Planets

A year ago it started to become clear that a significant number of exoplanetary systems harbored retrograde worlds. These planets are seen on small orbits that have the opposite sense to the spins of the stars that host them. This is a peculiar and puzzling arrangement. We've all been brought up to think of planets and stars forming out of the same proto-stellar disk of material and that angular momentum is an almost sacrosanct quantity - can't fiddle around with that. Getting planets to go in the opposite direction is quite unsettling.

Clearly the universe is having none of that silly narrow-minded thinking. However, the question has been how to produce these retrograde worlds; hot Jupiters zipping the "wrong" way around their parent stars in closely circular orbits. A new paper by Naoz and colleagues presents some intriguing and thorough calculations about a couple of phenomena that could do the trick.

They consider pairs of large, gas giant sized, planets that start out in decently large prograde orbits. For example, the inner planet may orbit at 6 astronomical units (AU) from the star, the outer planet at about 60 AU. The trick is to follow what happens if those initial orbits are highly misaligned. In other words if the orbital planes of the two planets are more than 50 degrees inclined with respect to each other. In this type of configuration long term gravitational nudging between the planets - particularly the outer one on the inner one - can result in severe changes in the ellipticity or eccentricity of the inner planet's orbit, as well as its orientation. Over a span of a few hundred thousand years the orbit can not only shift from being nearly circular to being nearly "needle like" (highly elliptical) but its orientation can change dramatically. In the most extreme instances it can quite literally flip, shifting all the way through a 90 degree inclination to more than 90 degrees - in effect going retrograde.

This flip can occur during an eccentricity spike, which I think gives us some physical insight to what happens. At the far point (apastron) of a super high eccentricity orbit the planet is going to be almost hanging in space, slowing to a near standstill before plunging back star-wards. If already on a highly inclined orbit (close to that 90 degrees) then all it will take is a little tug from the outer planet in the right direction to flip the orbit over. It's a bit like that moment of indecision teetering at the top of a snowy hill with skis attached to feet. Left to take the piste, right to go to the bar.

At the same time, an extremely elliptical orbit will bring the planet zooming in from several AU to mere tenths of an AU from the star as the planet screeches through its periastron approach. Naoz et al have computed the strength of star-planet tidal forces and the associated energy dissipation and show that the inner planet can be yanked into a tight circular orbit around the star in an incredibly brief period. A little too close to the honey pot and you get trapped. Once this happens the inner planet is totally decoupled from the outer planet, which simply cannot get its sticky gravitational mitts on the inner world any more. The end result is a close orbiting retrograde hot Jupiter.

Remarkably Naoz et al.'s models even seem to produce about the right fraction of systems in which this will happen. The only hitch is how to set up the initial configuration of planets, particularly with the outer planet on such a large orbit and with such a large mis-alignment between their orbital planes. Luckily an earlier epoch of strong planet-planet gravitational scattering from within the zone of planet formation might just do the trick.

Planetary systems are just so incredibly diverse. And, once again, we find ourselves gazing at our own system and wondering just how far we can or should take the Copernican Principle. This boring little solar system of ours may yet turn out to be a little on the special side.

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