"Wobbly" Planet Spotted in Binary Star System

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NASA this week revealed that the Kepler Space Telescope has spotted a planet with a very erratic orbit. The planet, named Kepler-413b, orbits around a pair of stars and performs what astronomers are describing as a wobble as its spins.

The planet's binary system is located 2,300 light-years from our system and contains two dwarf stars, one orange and one red. Kepler-413b orbits the stars at an angle slightly shifted (2.5 degrees) from the plane of its stars' orbits. Viewed from the side-on it would appear that the planet moves up and down constantly while revolving around its stars every 66 days. Meanwhile, the planet is processing rapidly, with its spin axis tilting by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years.

"Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days -- one transit every 66 days -- then we had 800 days with no transits at all," said Veselin Kostov, principal investigator of the phenomenon and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "After that, we saw five more transits in a row."

The reason for Kepler-413b's tilted orbit is still eluding astronomers. Hypotheses for the phenomenon include the interference of other planets in the system or a third star that is influencing its orbit.

According to astronomers, Kepler-413b would be wholly unsuitable for life as we know it. The planet's erratic orbit would mean rapid shifts in seasons. In addition, the planet is a gas giant 65 times the mass of Earth that orbits its stars so closely that liquid water cannot exist on it.

"Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we're not seeing because we're in the unfavorable period," said Peter McCullough, a colleague of Veselin's at the Space Telescope Science Institute. "And that's one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we're not seeing?"

Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

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